To Enjoy UWaterloo
Disclaimer: This is advice for people exactly like me. If you aren't, you'll probably still find it useful, but take with a grain of salt.
Well congratulations! You’ve been accepted to the University of Waterloo. By this point, you’ve probably doom scrolled horror stories on the Reddit page, maybe even found other classic advice documents from legends past. Waterloo’s reputation precedes itself. In fact, there are a couple canned responses from people when I say I go here:
- How is your 83rd internship?
- Are you ok?
Both of which indicate a culture that isn’t super conducive to having a good time. With that, it’s always then a shock to people when I tell them that I really love my time here. It’s incredibly generative and I’m often surrounded by my favorite people. The following is my condensed guide to making the best of your time there.
Deciding to Stay
In order to enjoy this place, you have to decide you want to be here. Take it from me — I was the person that friends bet on to drop out first. I viciously flirted with the idea of leaving to start a company or build out a media studio. Maybe this is you too. Perhaps there was a different school you were eyeing, you’ve been bit by the startup bug, or you’re questioning university altogether.
Even if you don’t believe it now, try this thought exercise: What would Waterloo look like if it was a place you wanted to be? Beyond pragmatic benefits and employability? Accept that this is possible, and that it’s within your realm of control to make real. It's a hard thing to accept, mostly because it's a lot of responsibility! If you acknowledge that your experience is malleable, you have to bear the responsibility of making it good. BUT, believing it can be good is a precondition to making it enjoyable.
My personal rationale for staying
I ultimately decided to finish my degree. At first, I used the possibility of getting a visa as my primary, calculated reason to not drop out. But as the O-1 becomes more accessible, actually having the degree becomes less relevant. Still, I’ve found a couple of different reasons to stay:
- Opportunity - Waterloo is a hotbed for some of the things I want to do. There are enough leading researchers, well equipped facilities, and available licenses to accelerate my progress on topics I’m investigating
- Exposure to a variety of knowledge - Of course, any sufficiently motivated person is capable of self-teaching, but I probably wouldn't have learned about Bessel functions otherwise. I've also, unexpectedly, really loved our classes on signals and fluids.
- Low enough opportunity cost - I condense my school work enough that I don’t feel limited by it. Through the power vested in my by the internet, I still feel very capable of doing anything I want to do.
- Fun - I just want to be in school. I love my friends and it’s a good time.
There are a couple of things that matter less to me now, but occasionally cross my mind:
- Family - Not a single one of my parents or grandparents got to go to university. Although they ultimately trust the decisions I make, how cool would it be if I got my degree!
- Social proof - Engineering is more meritocratic than most other fields, but I do think that if you don’t graduate as a female engineer, it surfaces questions around ability.
Huge caveat: everything I’m saying comes from a place of financial security. I am lucky enough to be on a scholarship. If your degree is putting you into bankruptcy, no amount of positive thinking can really make your decision make sense.
So if you’ve decided to stay, we’re going to kick things into high gear. The opposite of dropping out is dropping in, or maximizing your experience to the fullest extent.
There's a set of things that everyone needs to feel fulfilled. Within each bucket, give yourself some dedicated time to map out all the things you are personally interested in. With the average Waterloo workload, it's possible you go your entire degree without hearing about really cool things.
For me, I was in Blueprint for the first 2 years, before spending most of my time scaling up Socratica. I also did a bunch of hackathons, CTFs with the Cybersecurity club, and attended events through the Climate Institute. I occasionally participate in events through my major, Systems Design Engineering.
- Professors - Go through faculty pages, read through bios, or browse the little known resource that is experts.waterloo.ca. Most profs are willing to talk to you if you just email them. They are busy, but also have a vested interest in making sure Waterloo students interested in their field are well guided.
- Labs & Institutes - Google is best for this because each faculty has their own list. A systematic way to approach this is to look through those seeking URAs or URSAs.
- Clubs & Design teams - The WUSA club list is pretty good for this, but can miss emergent clubs that are highly active, fantastic, but don't want to deal with bureaucracy. Check the Reddit or search uw- on Instagram
- Classes - There is a big catalog of all courses and their current schedules. This is helpful for selecting future electives, or exploring different topics. I've dropped in on a couple of cybernetics related courses.
I find that I am 50% functional without consistent physical activity. Luckily, we're quite well resourced at Waterloo. I gym and box.
- Intramurals - We have intramural competitions for nearly every level of every sport. This includes the standard soccer, volleyball, and ultimate, but some little known gems include inner tube water polo and dodgeball. One of my favorite university experiences will probably be a crazy comeback win with 10 friends during one of these dodgeball games. Highly recommend.
- Casual Clubs - In addition to university organized intramurals, we have student organized clubs. They are listed on the Warriors portal, and range from archery, to ballroom, to Muay Thai. These are typically more equipment heavy, and require registration at the beginning of the term.
- Drop-ins - For the more casual athlete, there are roughly 20 drop-in classes per week of barre, spin, etc.
This is arguably the most important part. We'll go over this in the next section, on how to find your people!
- You should walk around - My friends and I joke that we should spend a day trying to touch every building. I unironically still believe this is a good idea. You'll come across interesting niches like the piano design lab in DC or printmaking in SCH. There are also a few underrated sports facilities like golf simulators and squash courts that aren't very well advertised.
- Enjoy your free papers! - As a student, you have a huge cheat code when learning about any topic: "Log In With Your Institution". With this, you have a wealth of IEEE, ACM, Nature, etc papers. You can look up all the journals here
- Use the hell out of free licenses - Your degree gives you access to the following. If you paid for them out of pocket, it would cost X0,000 annually:
- Engineering - Altium, Solidworks, Matlab, Labview, all Autodesk, virtual computers.
- Art - Cinema4D, discounted Adobe
- Business - Pitchbook, Statista, Bloomberg Terminal
- WUSA insurance is easier to use than you think - This is one of the most underrated parts of your tuition. I've had it cover x-ray, chiropractor, dental, optometrist, and nutritionist appointments.
- Lurk on the news pages - There is little latency between "thing happening" and "news reported" from the university. This makes the newsfeeds a great place surfacing groups doing interesting work or who have just received funding.
Finding your People
This is really the final boss of feeling fulfilled. Although I feel like a pretty social person (have been referred to as "the extrovert's extrovert"), it was still pretty hard for me to find my people. There are a couple of things that makes this uniquely hard at Waterloo:
- Different social infrastructure - We're really good at cultivating small groups of work/course based friendships (which I appreciate), but it also means that casual or interest based relationships are hard to come by. The only student bar died before my time. Aside from a few gems, we don't really have open social gathering spaces, big sporting events, or Greek life. If you don't have the cosmic luck of having your besties in your 150 person cohort, it can be hard to come across them elsewhere.
- Stream system - Even when you meet friends you like, they might not even be on campus when you are.
- Bad weather - For 40% of the year, people are (understandably) cozied up at home.
So where do you find these people?
- Go where they are aggregated - Join clubs, design teams, student associations, sports teams, labs, etc. Don't just lurk in the Discord, show up to workshops and events. The key is to offload the searching effort to organizations already trying to aggregate the people with similar disposition and interest. Consider attending a Socratica session!
- Use the internet to create beacons - Becoming active on Twitter changed my life in a pretty significant way. The town square may eventually become Substack, Instagram, or some hot new social app, but the principle is the same. Plant flags by unabashedly writing/creating about things you care about. If you need to do so pseudonymously, then so be it.
- Organize gatherings - We are in a gathering deficit. From what we've learned organizing UW Startups and Socratica, there is a pretty massive appetite for people coming together.
- You don't need club status, a big sponsor, or a club to back you. Just do it. If you're having trouble finding people, consider posting on the ever active r/uwaterloo subreddit
- Become a regular somewhere - This one is from my friend Rikard: "I’ll work at Williams most days or go to PAC at the same times and you start to actually recognize the people around you and start getting to know them which leads to a sense of familiarity/belonging!"
- You can't stop trying - You have to do the leg work. It's in the DM slides and cold emailing. Your people are out there!
Waterloo, at its worst, can be hyper-competitive, insular, and incredibly isolating. The best thing you can do for yourself is to find the people that remind you about how big and sparkly the world can be. Whimsy is in much shorter supply than ambition. Find people to have wholesome fun with and your life will improve greatly.
- Go to the club fair - At the start of every term, there's a big showcase of all clubs. I learned that we have everything from cheese tasting, to fencing, to deception games, to cooking clubs. Literally everything from A (alternative proteins) to Z (zoology). You just need to show up from 2-4pm at SLC on a fateful afternoon!
- Always have a little snack on you - I've been made fun of for my tendency to always have food on me but it works!! One of the easiest ways to make friends is to offer a HiChew or Timbit. Immediate icebreaker.
- Work on campus - Working with metaphorical garage door open. Noise cancelling headphones in a public space are excellent for running into the occasional acquaintance, while still being able to get work done.
- Make time to hang out - This is definitely hypocritical for me to say but I'm learning!! There's so much potential in lingering for a couple minutes after class, or having the time to wander into showcases.
- During summers, go to Waterloo Park in the evening - It's not only gorgeous, but bustling. One of the best times of the year
I don't have too much to say here that hasn't already been said. I'll leave it to Andrej Karpathy to explain it through his blog
- Be an email fiend - Don't be shy about emailing to take classes you don't have the pre-requisites for! I also got courses outside of my major approved. Always worth the ask
- Figure out the average range you need for your goals - 80% (in engineering) seems to be the magic average where, if you're not going for grad school, all doors stay open for you. You can do still research, apply for internal scholarships, and go abroad. I'd recommend comfortably hovering over 80, but the effort required for 90%+ will detract from things that might contribute to what you actually care about.
Coming up for Air
I think it’s a little funny that one of Waterloo's selling points is its co-op program. It's like calling yourself the "cool parent" to your angsty teen: the main selling point is that they get to spend time away from you.
Joking aside, it's one of the things I love most about the university. There are built in ways to refresh your perspectives. It's almost a vaccination against staleness - for better or worse, you're always in motion. I think there are ways to micro-dose this invigoration throughout the school term.
- Work - If you have the capacity, working part time is a great way to take yourself out of Waterloo hivemind. Although, I'd caution about falling into strings of paid contract work at the expense of learning new skills. People are always looking to hire Waterloo students, and it's hard to say no to known rewards for unknown future benefits.
- Projects - I always feel best when I'm also working on something else outside of expected school work. The external momentum from something values aligned often carries me forward. Getting to share it at Socratica is the cherry on top
- Fellowships - I feel quite blessed to be parts of communities like Contrary, Interact, and Emergent Ventures.
- Volunteering - One of the best ways to touch grass. There are awesome local charities and non-profits like Adventure4Change and United Way Waterloo. You can go on the SVP Waterloo and WRCF website to find charities to support with your time.
- Conference discounts - Almost all conferences have discounted/free tickets for students! This ranges from academic conferences (eg. ICML), to industry conferences (eg. DEFCON), to company conferences (eg. Config)
There are a bunch of quirks about the city that make it great. One of my favorite, is that we have one of the best "complete streets" in North America. To those that aren't urban planning nerds, that means there is a light rail, pedestrian walkway, bike lane, and road for cars.
Some more fun facts:
- We have a large Mennonite population that makes awesome food. Sometimes you will see them riding horses or carriages on the street.
- There’s a tunnel system that connects the entire university
- Uptown Waterloo has art exhibits during the summer and a skating rink in the winter.
This is the link to the Google Map with all the following locations, for your easy access.
- City Cafe Bakery - The cutest little bakery with the friendliest staff. Wood oven bagels and pastries. They sell out pretty quickly so go early and bring cash!
- Four All Ice Cream - A summertime classic. Started by a Waterloo alum, simple ingredients and fun flavors.
- The Fritter Co - A box of cinnamon-y joy. Their apple fritters are also great with ice cream
- Poke box - Really generous portions of healthy ingredients
- Campus Pizza - You just gotta.
- Lazeez - You just gotta (pt 2)
- Gol's Lanzhou Noodle - They don't have to go as hard as they do. Great hand-pulled noodle and close to campus
- Watami - The best sushi I've had in Waterloo
- Jinzakaya AYCE - All you can eat! Fun for birthdays. Save the stomach room, max out on sashimi, and take a time lapse.
- Gustav Bakos Observatory - They do public tours! Great for dates
- Rock garden - Contains the World’s Oldest Rock^TM.
- Perimeter Institute - One of the most beautifully architectured buildings in Waterloo. Reflects off the water at night in a gorgeous way
- Communitech - Important part of Waterloo startup lore
- Bingemans - Good for bowling and large group fun
- LSI Switchboard - They are the everything shop. Extremely wholesome people. You should go just to tell them that they're awesome
I'm a serial walker. Most of my social interactions are done in motion. The great thing about these trails is that they actually connect! You can go through them in a long bike loop if you're so inclined.
- Use the ION - It's Waterloo's light rail! You're already paying it with your tuition. It's fast, convenient, and really cute.
- Get a bike! - Your enjoyment of the city will increase 5x. This is a specific trail loop that you should bike through, it showcases the best of Waterloo, and largely consists of protected lanes.
- Sample the food - I’m originally from British Columbia, and have spent an embarrassing amount of time on Robson Avenue there, indulging in food crawls. I would dare to say Waterloo's plaza is just as good. We have a huge cultural diversity of food. Everything from Nigerian jollof to sushi buffets. Take advantage of it while you can!
- Get cheap groceries at farmers markets - Both the St.Jacobs and Kitchener market run year round. Bring physical cash, your own bags, and get a bunch of healthy surplus produce.
- Go camping - If you have a car, try to make your way out to do a camping trip. The UW Outers club provides cheap rentals for tents, hiking packs, and misc outdoor equipment if you don’t have your own.
Making the Magic
Beyond individual recommendations, the most important thing is that you have to believe that the best place to be, is where you currently are. It's the same feeling as when you're in a party and seeing people already having fun. You can either peek through shoulders, trying to shimmy into an existing conversation, or you can plant your feet, get to know the people around you, and trust that they are also awesome and interesting.
You (yes you!) have the capacity to raise communities from the ground. You can find the one lab, club, or space that makes your brain sing. You can grow into your best, most ambitious, kind self here.
The beauty of Waterloo, or any place, is that it can become anything you want it to be. Magic happens because you choose for it to - don't forget it!
This post is dedicated to many, but especially Joss, who saw the magic long before I did.