3B Systems Design Engineering
During the fall of 2020, I was supposed to be on a co-op term.
Throughout those four months, many of my peers were working remotely for Big Tech companies and living in beautiful condos.
Instead, I’d elected to collect CESB. When people would ask me what I was doing, I would simply answer: “surviving.”
And I was.
I spent my time volunteering, reading, writing, taking a fine arts course, and doing some research work. My activities were eclectic, at times entirely unfocused, and in the eyes of some, pointless.
However, my fall term was the most exciting and enlightening term I have experienced since starting my undergraduate degree. For the first time in nearly four years, I’d given myself time to breathe and engage with things I’d been longing to do outside of the frenetic pace of university life.
There is no doubt we are living through particularly disorienting times.
Yet, the fervent pace at Waterloo hasn’t stalled. In fact, it seems to have almost accelerated with more job rounds and more competition than ever.
The silence borne of COVID-isolation hasn’t allowed much time for meditation. Instead, it seems to have amplified the social pressures booming in the aspirational echo chamber at Waterloo.
Things are further confused for upper-year students experiencing “graduation panic.” As a 3B student, I see this in myself and in my peers as people weigh the validation of receiving an “impressive” final internship or full-time job offer while trying to parse out what they really want from life.
A friend of mine, considering two job options, felt that the one they really wanted wasn’t as much of a “sixth co-op” as the other.
I think most LinkedIn-perusing students at Waterloo can understand what they meant.
It’s for that reason that I had to remind them, and myself, that such a statement is inherently meaningless. Even in the pits of co-op’s culture of comparison, the highest level that peer-judgement rises to is simple indifference.
This might seem a bit daunting. After all, in our minds we are the most important people in the world. But it’s also incredibly liberating.
Other people simply don’t care about us as much as we think they do.
Once we stop trying to keep up with the expectations we think others have of us, the pace of life slows a little, and it can be easier to discern what we are actually racing toward. Furthermore, it can be easier to distill what we want to be racing toward, if anything at all.
The uncertainty of our times pushes us to find refuge in perceived certainty.
“If I do internship X, then I’ll be able to get a job full-time at Y because John Smith did the same thing, at least according to his LinkedIn. And then, I’ll have that kind of life.”
This is a form of linear thinking commonly found at Waterloo and elsewhere. We draw upon referents to assure us of certain life outcomes in making decisions.
The issue is that life is far from linear.
As we are witnessing now, life is cyclic and deeply uncertain. Just like grappling with the indifference of others, this is a frightening reality.
And once more, it’s entirely liberating.
It’s great to have role models or aspirational figures who have woven interesting paths that might be inspiring to you. But it’s also important to remind yourself that what has happened is not all that there is.
The point here isn’t to sanctimoniously extol what I think to be meaningful work, or a good life. Everyone has their own philosophy and approach on how to live.
All I want to do is remind you that it’s never too late to chase a dream that’s been sowed slightly below your subconscious. If nobody else has done it before, remember that you could be the first to inspire others like you.
So if you can, between the interviews and the exams and the eye-blurring Zoom lectures, try to slow your pace and breathe. Try to embrace the silence, rather than run from it. Hear your voice. You have to decide for yourself what you believe to be true, because ultimately you have to live your life.
After all, there is no path until you walk it.