My Journey in the University of Waterloo’s Computer Engineering Program — 1st Year
This is gonna be quite the long article. It was a really long journey. But with only two weeks left until I officially complete this program, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my experiences for the last 6 years of my life. I remember reading some of these by other students throughout my degree and thought it would be great in sharing my story as well.
To structure it out I am going to break the article up by year, and talk about everything on a term basis. Although I will be talking about academics and coop, I don’t plan to go too deep into the courses themselves. There are already some great articles already made for that and I left I made specifically about coop at the bottom. This will be focused more on my personal growth during each term and some main takeaways I had from it. With that said let’s get started on 1st year!
Background — Pre uWaterloo
I have always been fascinated with computers and technology. Even early on as a kid, I remember family friends asking me for help to fix their computers. Seeing the first iPhone, watching the first Iron Man movie and getting my PS2 were definitive moments in my childhood that made working in the tech industry a dream for me, even growing up in Calgary where oil and gas reigned supreme. So when my dad asked me in Grade 9 what if I knew what I wanted to do, my answer was clear. Computer Engineering. When he asked what universities I wanted to do it at the list went something along the lines of Stanford, Berkeley, MIT and the University of Waterloo.
4 years of high school later, and, on Feb 26, 2016, I found out that I had gotten into my dream program. With that email, my fate was sealed.
1A: Welcome to the Jungle (Sept — Dec 2016)
1A was a term of extremes. I came in as an ambitious 17 year old eager to start learning about a topic I knew I loved and care deeply for. I left anxious, scared and truly questioning what the hell I signed up for. It was quite the ride.
The details are foggy after so many years but I do remember orientation being pretty hit or miss. Some events like our Monte Carlo night were pretty fun while others had us trotting around campus in excruciating heat. EDCOM was intimidating, the tool was sacred and we chanted “WATER-WATER-WATER-LOO-LOO-LOO” for days on end. I spent orientation week hanging out with my friends and roommates who also decided to come to Waterloo as well as some new friends I made during the week. I ended orientation week excited to get started onto the good stuff. It came very very quickly.
Lectures began and very quickly I realized that ECE moved fast. Incredibly fast. The same amount of content we covered in a week in high school was covered in an hour and it was up to us to make sense of it. The content itself felt like it was one step above what we learned in high school but nothing extremely out of the ordinary. I started making some friends in the class and got to know them pretty well. Although I have lost contact with some, a lot of them are lifelong friends. ECE is known to have a bad reputation socially and, although a lot of these claims are warranted, with the class is so big I was able to find people I vibed with.
A week after school began we also started our hunt to find our first coop job. We took our terrible high school resumes, got them absolutely hammered by upper years and kept working hard to try making them better. I learned pretty early on that putting time into coop was more important than school. I put school on the backburner for a bit and made sure that I got my resume critiqued by as many people as you can.
At the same time, JobMine(now known as WaterlooWorks) opened up and I finally saw the promised jobs I signed up for. Tesla, Apple, Google, Facebook. The end all, be all for me was in view. But of course that was a long ways away. For now the goal was to get a job so I refactored my resume, submitted it to the allowed 50 jobs and prayed that I got an interview. Although things were busy, it seemed like it was going alright overall.
A Rude Awakening
October is really when things started to become hectic. Interviews were in full swing and the threat of midterms started to loom on. Despite this, I was starting to get pretty checked out of lectures and spent most of my time hanging out with my new friends.
Despite midterms having 5 midterms in 5 days, I went into midterms pretty confident that I would at least get an 80 across the board. I understood what the professor was talking about and had seen a lot of the content that they were teaching us before. I was so confident in fact that I ended up binging all of Narcos Season 1 and 2 a couple of days leading up to the exam.
I could not have been any more wrong. I ended up failing two or three midterms and barely passing the others. As someone who hadn’t failed anything or ever come close to a mark like this, it came as a shock. I had heard the horror stories from upper years before but had always assumed that it was just because they were not as smart or capable as me. I needed to be humbled.
Socially things starting deteriorating as well. With the stress of midterms, coop and general issues that come up when people leave home, I could feel the atmosphere change drastically.
Despite this, I did my best to keep calm and carry on. By the middle of November I ended up securing a coop job (as a software developer without any coding experience somehow). For a brief moment things were starting to ease back up again.
Final Exam Stress
December was my first taste of what stress during finals season feels like. I had to do everything I could to try to not fail the semester and, alongside some of my new ECE friends in a similar boat, ended up just spending the weeks leading up to exams locked in one our rez rooms studying. We made sure to go through all the previous exams available on Exam Bank and started went through all the problem sets we could. Our individual anxiety of failing became shared and throughout the process of trying to collectively pass we did form a level of comradery.
I went into PAC, wrote my exams, flew home and waited for the results to come back, mentally preparing myself for having to repeat the term. Two weeks later, and many prayers later I saw those magic words: Satisfactory Standing. With that my 1A semester came to an end.
- 1A taught me a couple of important lessons from the very beginning. First that University exams, especially ECE ones, are on another level. They are genuinely tough and definitely go above just knowing the content. You need to be able to interpret the content and be able to extrapolate it if it’s in a way you have never seen before. Profs love giving students questions they do not have experience with.
- The second lesson, which is a big recurring one throughout my degree: The difficulty of the exam is completely dependent on the professor. There is no standardization or review process for the exam. You being comfortable with the material can mean nothing if the prof wants it too. Whatever the prof feels like throwing on there goes and there really isn’t much that can be done about it.
- The third lesson that goes hand in hand with the second: Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Even for courses you feel like you have in the bag, make sure you don’t take it lightly. Put the time in, review the course material and attempt doing previous exams. You never know what will show up.
- 1A was one of the turning points in my life. It ripped apart this preconceived notion that I had that I knew exactly what I want. Is this really what I am cut out for? I could also no longer be someone who defined themselves through grades and academics. So what did I want to be known for? Who did I want to be?
- The struggle of 1A also reiterated how important friendship and family is to me. Without the friends I had and the ones that I made through the semester, I genuinely do not know if I would have been able to continue. No matter how disheartening things got, they were there to support me. If you are in or about to enter the University, please do not underestimate how important it is to make time for others. At least from my own experience, I can tell you it makes a huge difference.
- Narcos might be one of the best TV shows of all time but it probably isn’t worth failing your midterms over
- Don’t drink more than 1 can of monster. 2 cans in and you aren’t finishing whatever you were staying up for.
- Taking your notes to a campfire the night before your final might not be the best idea
1A was a rough but necessary beginning. Despite the pain it caused in the short term, it was key in setting me up for later terms. I hope that if you are going into 1A, that you were able to get some value from my experience and some of the takeaways I had from it.
Math 117 — Levon Haykazyan
Chem 102 — Jason Grove
ECE 105 — Robert Mann
ECE 140 — Mohamed Yahia Dabbagh
ECE 150 — Alfred Yu
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Course: ECE 150
Favorite Professor: Alfred Yu
Favorite Study Spot: V1 Roof Lounge
Favorite Place for Food: V1 Cafeteria
Favorite Song: No Role Modelz — J.Cole
Favorite Memory: It is hard to choose but there was one time where after studying all day, at night we drove into the middle of the forest, found a firepit and sat there talking about life in the freezing cold.
Coop Term 1: A Needed Recovery (Jan — April 2017)
My first coop term might still be my favorite term in this whole degree. It was a term filled with learning, new experiences and an amazing time.
For the term I was working at Mosaic Sales Solutions, a marketing company in Mississauga, as an Enterprise Developer. Without any coding experience (other than basic C++ that I learned in ECE 150), I was definitely intimidated going into work but my team great in making me feel welcome. I started to understand how applications are built and how modern day agile teams operate. More specifically, I started to learn React, Node.js and Ruby on Rails which are still relevant today.
Growing up in Calgary, I had always wanted to live in Toronto and I was finally able to do exactly that. Alongside a couple of friends who were also living in Toronto, we spent our days travelling around the city and trying everything it had to offer. We were just happy that we were able to land a coop job and really had no other worry in the world.
This term also made me realize the importance of physical health as well. I spent the term trying to eat healthy and develop good habits which was in stark contrast to 1A where my diet consisted of a Chocolate Milk and Cookies from Eng C&D. With my physical health in a much better place, I noticed that my overall outlook on life was far better.
Overall this coop term helped me recover from the disaster that was 1A, gain valuable experience and let me live the city life with my friends that I have always wanted.
- Your early coop terms should be focused on maximizing learning. Don’t worry too much about the title or the pay. If it seems interesting to try then just go ahead and do it.
- Try optimizing for a good manager. It can make a huge difference in your time and a manager can easily make or break a semester (as will be seen later)
- Getting paid feels great. Who knew money could enter your account rather than just leaving all the time
- It is important to take care of your body. At Waterloo a lot of us end up ignoring that side and end up adding to the already stressful semester.
- It is important it is to go out and try new things. I learned a lot about myself this semester exploring the city. Every weekend felt like a new adventure and it really felt like there was no dull moment.
- Toronto is a sick city and I think it’s more than worth to live in Downtown if you can
This coop term was exactly what I needed to reset and be ready for the next semester. Armed with these new experiences, a renewed outlook on life and even closer bonds with my peers, it set me up for success in 1B and beyond.
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Spot: Eaton Centre
Favorite Place for Food: Manpuku
Favorite Song: The Party and The After Party — The Weeknd
Favorite Memory: A lot of good memories but one of the best days was definitely when me and my buddies spontaneously deciding to go to Niagara Falls and catch a Raptors Game in the evening.
1B: A New Hope (May — August 2017)
Going into 1B, I was prepared for Waterloo. After the lessons I learnt from 1A and the great time I had on my coop term, I was ready to make sure I turned things around this semester. For the most part, I think I was able to do just that.
With the weather warming up and summer coming on, things definitely felt a lot better coming into Waterloo. Despite it being less crowded, somehow I actually felt more connected to campus. I think being able to walk around it at any times without freezing definitely helped me appreciate the smaller nuances of it more.
Academically the term started like 1A, back to the fast speed ECE is always is at. Yet this time being more prepared, I definitely didn’t notice it as much. I also liked the profs more this semester and the courses seemed easier compared to 1A. Midterms came, I only failed one this time around and overall the semester was a lot more of a great experience.
Socially things were definitely a lot better this semester as well. Because of the warm weather, and everyone being more familiar with Waterloo I think organizing things was a lot easier for everyone.
The coop hunt started pretty early once again and for this term I wanted to try something new. I was still interested in trying Hardware but was open to going back to software as well. I ended up eventually getting a position at the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Software Solutions Developer. It seemed like a great opportunity as they seemed enthusiastic about us coming in and it was a way for me to have ownership on projects as well, given we would be their first batch of developers for this project.
Fast forward to the end of the semester with the usual exam grind and my 1B semester was complete. It was exactly the kind of semester I needed after what had happened earlier.
- This semester reinforced to me that professors make a big difference. The grind of ECE started to become more familiar to me and although there definitely was some low points (finishing ECE 124 Labs at 5am every week), it was definitely a much more enjoyable experience.
- Learning how to balance aspects of life more is extremely important. For me starting to learn it helped me not socialize more, but do better academically. It definitely comes with time but I believe that finding that balance is key to enjoying your time at Waterloo.
- Summer term is beautiful and is definitely the best term at uWaterloo
- The Geese breed like crazy near the V1 lake so watch out for them and their young
1B was a great term. My GPA was higher and I never really felt the fear of failing (especially to the same degree as 1A). Socially things were a lot better than 1A and summer semesters definitely became my favourite time of the year at Waterloo. In retrospect it was really great I had this term especially considering the next academic term was absolutely killer.
Math 119 — Sean Speziale
ECE 103 — Martin Pei
ECE 106— Firas Mansour
ECE 124 — Catherine Gebotys
ECE 155— Wei-Ting Chen
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Course: ECE 155
Favorite Professor: Firas Mansour (Rest in Peace)
Favorite Study Spot: Faculty of Health Building
Favorite Place for Food: Lazeez Shawarma (Yes I know)
Favorite Song: Feels — Calvin Harris
Favorite Memory: Our residence was MKV West and for the summer term, no one was living on the MKV East wing. The doors however were still unlocked and we were able to access the common area of the floors. Seeing the opportunity we then decided that it was a great idea to throw a party on that side of the building. What started as an invitation to 30–40 of our friends somehow blew up to at least 200 people at this party all over the building. It got shut down pretty quickly but is still by far the wildest party I have ever hosted. People were talking about that one for a while.
Coop Term 2: Developing Interests (Sept — Dec 2017)
My second coop term was pivotal in furthering my interest in startups and enjoying the city of Waterloo a lot more.
As mentioned earlier, for this term, I worked at the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Software Solutions Developer. Essentially the Air Force wanted to create innovate digital solutions and in order to do that they bought a space in Communitech. If you have not heard of Communitech it is an innovation hub in Downtown Kitchener where large established companies and small startups with Velocity come under one building to facilitate joint innovation. As part of this move by the Air Force, I was part of their first group of coop students to help work on an innovation project.
This turned out to be great for us as we got to have a startup like experience where we had customer interviews, developed the architecture and different build phases. Everyone at the Air Force’s innovation hub were also very enthusiastic and helped us wherever they could.
Socially, given its close proximity, I got to network with the other coop students working in Communitech and we hung out a lot after work. I also turned 19 this semester so I was able to actually enjoy the nightlife in Waterloo rather than always being limited to house parties.
This coop term helped me start taking a deeper look into pursuing startups full time. It really helped me evaluate what I value from a job and the type of work/environment I wanted to be part of. Although I still didn’t know it as a formal title at the time, it was also my first real taste of what being a Product Manager could look like.
- This coop term was let me have a pseudo startup experience while interacting with many people in a tons of different fields. A big takeaway for me was how important it can be to take advantage of the resources available to you. I could have done more of that, but even the amount I did made a big difference in my career.
- Being 18 sucks in Ontario. Turning 19 really changed the game for me.
- If you can, never rent a house that is currently under construction but supposed to be done. It will likely not be and you will be living in wall dust with no heating.
- Waterloo as city without the stress of exams is really not that bad
- Phil’s Wednesday is unbeaten in Waterloo. Have enough to drink, don’t look up or down and you will have a good time.
It was really good that I had this coop term right before the hell that was 2A. It helped me really start to settle in and appreciate Waterloo with the opportunities being in the program presents.
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Spot: Phil’s Grandson Place
Favorite Place for Food: Burrito Boyz
Favourite Song: Down Low — The Weeknd
Favourite Memory: Me and my friends went last minute halloween shopping and ended up deciding to buy matching Christmas Sweaters as our last second “costume”. It was a great idea and I’m still hard pressed to find a night I struck up more conversations.
With that, my first year year came to an end. It was a year of a lot of growth and learning. Despite the many lows, there were a lot of highs and I wouldn’t change the experience at all. There are so many more stories I can tell from that my time in my life but I hope that I was able to still capture some of what I went through.
For more pointed advice on coop feel free to check out some of the articles I have written previously.
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Thanks for reading,