Yesterday I spent an hour meeting with the Development Officer for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo (my Alma mater). Since graduating in 2006 I’ve been a President’s Circle-level donor to the university, and this meeting came about because the university is reaching out to alumni to understand why some of us give back to the school and others don’t.
In advance of the meeting, I asked if there was anything in particular I should think about ahead of time, and the reply asked me to “think about your experience here, both positive and negative…and why is it that you give, what compels you?”
Well…it’s actually quite complicated, and I’d say he got what he asked for.
Let me start off by saying that for the most part, I did not generally enjoy my time at the University of Waterloo. Much of this was my own doing, but some of it wasn’t. Below, I share the bad, the ugly, and the good of my experience at UW; please don’t leap to any judgments about the school before reading this entire post.
Things did not get off to a good start:
- I went to UW solely because it’s the top-ranked university in the country by a variety of criteria
- I took Computer Engineering not because I was interested in the program (in fact, I did not even know what it was), but because I’d heard it was the toughest program in the country, my ego had more influence than it should’ve, and computers and this Internet thing were clearly an area of future growth (this was back in the year 2000)
- It was only upon arriving in Waterloo that I found out I didn’t get summers (or any time, really) off
- I had absolutely no study habits whatsoever, and this whole toughest program in the country seriously kicked my ass
- Our course load was nuts: we had between 40 and 50 hours of class, labs etc. Add in the time to actually do the assignments, and your week is full. What made this especially annoying was that my residence don in first year posted her schedule on her door, and she had six hours of class in her program.
- The university screwed up my schedule in my first term, so I didn’t find out about a Calculus course I was supposed to be enrolled in until the third or fourth week (I didn’t know anyone in the program, so didn’t detect the oversight). About two weeks later we had a midterm, and I answered 20% of it.
- Our lectures were held in underground bombshelter or crypt-like lecture halls with terrible ventilation. If you liked Communist architecture, then you’d be at home here, but for those of us who liked air or light, this was lousy.
- A huge number of people in my class were on caffeine pills to stay awake to get in sufficient studying. During finals, I actually drew up a sleep schedule that got me about four hours of sleep a night over two weeks.
- The main “pub night” on campus was Wednesday night; I had an 8:30am lab every single Thursday. I went to the bar once in six years.
- We’d been at the school for a couple of years before getting an elective, and the elective basically worked out to choosing one from a list of one (if you wanted to keep your options open in third and fourth year, you pretty much had to take this particular course)
…and things didn’t really improve from there:
- The school frequently exhorted us to get involved and join student societies and teams, but due to course load it was damn near impossible for someone in my program to do so – those who did sign up before developing a solid study system (which usually took 2-3 years) failed out pretty quickly
- I lost all contact with everyone from back home, because we had such an enormous workload and no reading week (we got reading two days, and we always seemed to have midterms right after, so you just studied the whole time)
- Exams had huge amounts of content that were not covered in class – to learn how to answer certain questions, you had to go to extra-hours sessions that focused purely on past exams. So, you could ace the assignments and study questions for the entire semester, then get about 40% on the exam (true story!). There’s “use what you know to answer this question you’ve never seen before” (hey, that’s engineering), but these were “seriously, there is no way you can possibly figure this out on your own, ever.” I worked 20-30 hours a week at the university’s arena, so I couldn’t go to these extra sessions.
- …and then there was “the great failing”. I failed one course in my second academic term, and I automatically failed the whole term. But I wasn’t alone: about 40 of us failed that course. At least part of the reason why was because our professor stopped showing up about a month into the term. Seriously, this actually happened. He just stopped showing up to lectures. It took the department a few weeks to figure out why – it turns out he’d decided to start a company and had just left and gone to Cali to drum up investors. As it happened, this course (ECE 100) was double-weighted, so it accounted for 40% of our material that term, and it provided pretty much the entire foundation for the rest of our years in the program. Fail the course, fail the term. The department found another prof to fill in, but this was after the class had fallen a month behind. There was a comical moment towards the end of the term in which the Electrical Engineer prof gave a pre-exam “refresher” session, and my entire class (about 120 people) showed up because we hadn’t seen the material before – for us it wasn’t a refresher, it was a first-time-seeing. The mass failure presented the university with a bit of a conundrum, as they weren’t really set up to have 40 people fail out or join the next year’s class, and because the circumstances were so audacious. In response, they offered everyone the chance to do a rewrite four months later (so you could spend your work term studying, yay!), and indeed many students took this option and were passed through. About 15 of us chose to just repeat the whole term (we coined a name for our little sub-class, “Abort, Retry, Fail”); I did so because I didn’t want to squeak through and potentially fail out in dramatic and final fashion further down the line. Update: A classmate reminded me that you had to formally appeal to get the option of a rewrite.
And so on. To this day, if I have a nightmare it manifests not as some monster or personal tragedy – oh no – my nightmares are about having an exam coming up and feeling unprepared. I wake up groggy and panicked, but then as consciousness returns I get confused: “Oh man, I have that exam! But why do I have an exam? It’s 2012 and I graduated in 2006…this makes no sense. Aha, nightmare!” Relief.
To this day, my nightmares are about having an exam coming up and feeling unprepared.
I probably don’t fit the usual profile of an alumni donor. Yet I continue to donate, year-after-year.
I probably don’t fit the usual profile of an alumni donor. Yet I continue to donate, year-after-year…Why?
Almost all of the negatives above correspond to my first and second years at UW. As the years went by, my experience improved:
- I developed study habits: UW forced me to work. Hard. If you’re a smartypants in high school who doesn’t need to study, writes essays at the last minute, etc, then you will have a hard time adjusting to UW. Do yourself a favour and develop some good habits in advance!
- I learned that it was better to be awake and able to think, while slightly less prepared, for an exam than to have thoroughly covered all the material but end up as a zombie.
- I largely stopped attending class. Instead, my roommate and I worked on our own, keeping up with or moving ahead of the class. We’d basically determined that our time was more efficiently spent by self-learning than it was sitting through hours of lectures. Of course, this had drawbacks: there was a calculus final in which one question was based on content that wasn’t in our textbook, and you had to be in class to learn it. D’oh. But on the whole, this new approach worked best for us.
- My roommate and I developed complementary expertise, and this led to a tremendously effective partnership. He covered detail-oriented stuff (e.g., Assembly coding, circuit boards) and I covered our Java and C/C++ coding assignments and lab reports. We also split up other classes: he would learn the heck out of one, I’d learn the heck out of another, and we’d teach each other.
- I became more interested in my courses: as the years went by, the electives actually turned into electives, and I elected to take some appealing courses. Since I still wasn’t particularly interested in Computer Engineering, I dived into some other subjects. I particularly enjoyed Artificial Intelligence, and actually considered pursuing advanced degrees in this subject, which would have been possible because…
- …I started to succeed academically
- I met and got to know some great people who are now hugely important in my life.
- I was actively shaping my career direction: I can’t overstate how terrific UW’s co-op program is (that might be a post all by itself some day, but if your university doesn’t have co-op, then you’re missing out). Also, after the great failing, I had a co-op term at the Canadian Space Agency in which my coworkers were actually talking about B Fields and induction and other things that I’d thought abstract and useless at school…this work term helped me refocus and I came back to Waterloo ready to kick ass.
- My schoolwork and professional work started to benefit from transferable skills. At school, I was writing lab reports. At work, I was writing whitepapers. At school, I learned about computer hardware and software. At work, I used that knowledge to bridge the gap between engineering and marketing.
- I got involved on campus. The new work habits and strategies bought me the capacity to take on a bit more, and I wanted to give back and help out other students. I ended up on the executive of two student groups, and my biggest contributions were around career development items (e.g., helping people with résumés, cover letters, etc.)
- I worked nearly full-time during my last two academic terms (the only class I attended was an advanced AI one), so my finances were working out comfortably.
I suppose you could say that I decided to exert control over my experience rather than be carried miserably along, and this change in mindset was hugely empowering.
So what compels me to donate?
Look, it wasn’t all sunshine and puppies at UW, but it’s a terrific school.
Look, it wasn’t all sunshine and puppies at UW – there were more all-nighters than I remember and I felt like we were treated unfairly or poorly in many circumstances – but it’s a terrific school. The university has fantastic intellectual property policies (basically, you keep your own IP), and as a result has spawned more innovative and successful companies than I can stand to research and list (if they didn’t have such great IP policies, they’d be drowning in royalty cash and wouldn’t need donors!). The education is top-notch. The reputation is well-earned (whether in international competitions, track-record of hiring by Silicon Valley leaders, etc.). The university is forward-thinking. And so on.
If I consider everything, then there are probably two reasons why UW gets my money year-after-year:
- I would not be who I am, or where I am, without the University of Waterloo. And for that I am grateful. There is not a single thing that I’ve encountered in my professional career that remotely comes close to what UW threw at me again and again. Plus, I’ve had a pretty neat career so far, made possible by the UW co-op program and a comprehensive education. The flipside is that I find it incredibly difficult to relax: there’s always a feeling that I should be doing something, born of failure when I didn’t do enough, and that compels me to be a bit of a workaholic.
- I want the students who go to the University of Waterloo to have a better experience than I had. Maybe they’ll have better lab equipment. Maybe their classes won’t be in 1950s-era holes. Maybe they’ll have some more fantastic resources with which to start a company, or invent the future.
Because of #1, I will continue to support #2 however I can, and some cash every year is probably the least I can do.
I would not be who I am, or where I am, without the University of Waterloo. And for that I am grateful.