The last exam I took for my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo was in CS 456: Computer Networks. The exam consisted mostly of multiple choice and matching answer questions which I was very grateful for.
Reflecting on the past five years is difficult because of the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic. Since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, UWaterloo utilized online classes as the primary method of instruction. To say that online university was a depressing experience would be a dramatic understatement. The university began slowly offering some more in-person instruction in Fall 2021 but I did not get to experience this as I was on a co-op term at the time. Initially, the university planned to resume all instruction at pre-pandemic capacity in Winter 2022, but the spread of the omicron variant caused in-person classes to be delayed another six weeks. In the end, I spent just six weeks in a classroom before graduating.
Even the memories of university pre-pandemic are in some way retrospectively transformed by COVID’s presence. I have always had a penchant for nostalgizing, but it is hard not to reflect on the day-to-day life of my first two years of university and not think that these were “the good old days”. Days of eating residence food with friends, volunteering with math programs in person, and attending lectures unencumbered by thoughts on infection now seem far in the past.
There have been some personal upsides; the pandemic did help clarify some of my uncertainties about my career path. Throughout most of university, I had some underlying level of existential dread at the idea of graduating. In high school, my only real goal (beyond trying to survive each day) was to get into university. Once I got accepted graduation seemed like such a distant future that it was fruitless to ponder what I would do. And yet arriving at Waterloo, other students surrounded me with 5, 10, and 20-year life and career plans. I felt unmoored. I tacitly assumed that I would become a software developer since, after all, it was what I did in my free time as a teenager. But as I spent more time working, I became disillusioned with software engineering as a career path. The problems I worked on all felt like different flavours of the same CRUD app. My misgivings came to a head when the pandemic hit. I found working remotely an arduous task; without the daily routine imposed by office life, I struggled to motivate myself to work. I applied for a teaching assistant position for my next internship after hearing many good things from a friend who worked in the same position and I found it extremely gratifying. Where before I struggled to get up and bring myself to code, I instead found myself waking up with enthusiasm to start office hours and answer student questions. A future doing web development for the rest of my life felt bleak, but a future teaching was one where I could see myself being happy longer-term.
I should be careful about my tendencies for melodrama. The previous paragraph makes it seems like becoming a software engineer is a catastrophic eventuality. I have spent the last two months doing web development for silverorange and it has (as usual) been a pleasant and rewarding experience. For all I know, I might end up doing software long-term. Teaching at a university level is a long and challenging career path, and while as of now I do not intend to quit pursuing it, I am conscious that life has a way of subtly transforming one’s priorities over time. I am not as passionate about software engineering as I am about teaching, but I am slowly beginning to realize that passion is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to a career. I can compensate for less passion in my work by living a healthy lifestyle and engaging in things I am passionate about outside of work. It helps when the company one works for promotes a healthy work-life balance, which silverorange does, and I am very grateful for.
It is difficult to reflect on how one has changed over time. For me, a lot of growth happens organically and is not necessarily a conscious process. Furthermore, my growth happens slowly over time, which means I have to grapple with the boiling frog phenomenon.
From a technical perspective, I have a much greater appreciation for mathematical rigour. Perhaps it was the curriculum I was exposed to as part of my high school education, but entering as an undergraduate I had no idea what a proof was. I feel much stronger when it comes to that elusive notion of mathematical maturity. I have been tutoring students in my spare time recently to keep my teaching skills sharp, and I only truly began to appreciate how far I have come as a result of this. Homework problems that might have taken me ages when I first took the course I now grasp at an intuitive level. This skill of simply and concisely expressing complex mathematical ideas is one that I hope and believe will prove very useful throughout the rest of my life and career.
On a personal level, I am a much happier person than I was 5 years ago. I have become better at balancing my mental health with my work. Although I have never been too proud to admit and apologize for my mistakes, I have become better at forgiving myself and accepting that to err is human. I have become better at establishing boundaries to minimize and prevent unhealthy interpersonal relationships. I have become better at expressing my love and appreciation for those I care about. None of this would have been possible without the support of all the great friends I have made throughout university who have loved and cared for me even when I was not at my best. Credit also goes to the university’s counselling services, which, although underfunded, still provided great service to me during a time of personal need.
I am greatly looking forward to starting my graduate degree in the fall and growing even more as a person, computer scientist, mathematician, roommate, friend, and teacher. To the next 2 years and all the challenges and successes they may bring!