Okay just breathe, I remember telling myself as I walked to my car after orientation this time last year. I had just gotten through hearing a lot of things about the iSchool that I had not expected. Unfamiliar terms like metadata, UX, and Python were swirling around my head and as a history undergrad I felt incredibly out of my depth. Did I make the wrong decision? Am I where I need to be? I was thinking these things over and over. Once I got to my car, I called my parents and started freaking out. My mom calmed me down and reminded me that this is what I had worked for my entire academic career and gave me some advice that has stood me well: “Relax, keep an open mind and wait and see what happens.”
A year later, I am glad I took her advice. After getting to know this program and my fellow iSchoolers, I have seen first-hand how universal this reaction is among new students. The truth is, no matter what your undergraduate degree is, there’s little chance you have been fully prepared for all the new concepts that are going to be thrown at you when you enter the doors of the iSchool. If you come from disciplines such as education, English, or history, as I did, then the amount of new technological concepts surrounding human-computer interaction (HCI), databases, and coding can be incredibly intimidating. Likewise, students from more technological backgrounds may be surprised with the amount of analog information studies concepts they are greeted with, especially in the core classes. So to counteract this reaction I am going to offer you the same advice I received: Relax, keep an open mind, and wait and see what happens.
When first presented with new terminology and information at orientation and the first week of classes, the natural reaction is to freak out a little, like I did. But seriously, just take a moment to relax. This initial feeling is natural. Information Studies is an interesting and varied discipline that plugs into a lot of different related and not so related fields and as such most of us are going to feel out of our depth at some point in our time at the iSchool, especially at the beginning. Just breathe and try to focus on what has brought you here to begin with. By relaxing and focusing on your goals you will have a much more pleasant first few weeks than I did. Trust me.
Next, keep an open mind. You are going to find out about different information related fields that you never knew existed while you are here. Some of them might be up your alley, some of them might not. Try to speak with students that are further along in their studies in those fields and see what they like and dislike about them. If you came into the iSchool with only a general idea of what you are interested in, this can be a great way to understand all the different opportunities that are out there for folks with our graduate degree.
Chances are, however, that you came into this program with a firm career goal. Keep an open mind about what classes might apply to this goal. Some semesters there may be a dearth of classes to choose from in your field. It happens to all students in the iSchool. However, not to worry. One of the iSchool’s best qualities and what makes it so unique is that every student has the freedom to make this experience what they need it to be. The competition for some classes helps one to think outside the box and take initiative. Work with your advisor to find an upper level undergraduate or graduate class outside of iSchool that might benefit your studies in your chosen field, take the opportunity to enroll in practicum classes that give you real world experience, partner with the iSchool to find an internship or volunteer position in the field that you are interested in to get additional experience, and join societies such as SAA, ALA/TLA, ASIS&T and AWIT to meet other students like you and network with professionals that are working in the jobs you want after graduation.
Also, know that you can still work hard towards the discipline that you are passionate about while at the same time being open to learning about the other fields at the iSchool. Participating in other iSchool classes can show you areas you might never have thought you would be good in, and reaffirm those in which you are not, while at the same time making you a more dynamic job candidate when you graduate. For example, I took Database Management despite having no background in technology or coding. It was a very challenging and rewarding class that taught me that I can work with computers (albeit very clumsily) and that there are a lot of correlations between how I learned to organize information in my archives class and how folks in database management organize information. I may never be a database or coding whiz, but what I learned will give me insight into working with IT folks in the future and will make me a more well-rounded information professional. If you are a student who is passionate about information security, UX, or HCI, I would encourage you to perhaps do what I did but with analog information organization such as archiving or cataloging. Learning different ways that folks interact with and organize information without technology can only serve to provide you with a unique perspective that upon graduation could set you apart from others interviewing in your field.
Finally, wait and see what happens. Orientation and the first week of school are going to be incredibly intimidating no matter what particular discipline in the iSchool you are interested in. Regardless of how prepared you think you are, you likely are not. Instead of panicking the way I did, just keep chugging through your first few weeks. By week three things will start to make more sense, I promise. Once you have adjusted to the routine here, try to get involved as best you can in what the iSchool has to offer. Schedule meetings with professors and lecturers in the field or fields that you are interested in, visit the IT Lab and get your bearings with some of the services and help the “Purple Shirts” can provide, and meet with the Career Development office to start charting your path towards the profession that you are aiming for.
Overall, your time here is what you make of it. Unlike a lot of programs which force feed you classes and are highly restrictive, the iSchool really does allow you to explore and find what is best for you. If you are not used to that, as I was not at the beginning of my first semester last year, the newness and openness of it all can be terrifying and overwhelming. If you get to feeling that way and start panicking just breathe and remember what my mom told me: You have been working towards this. Relax, keep an open mind, and wait and see what happens.