Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

An Open Challenge

31 Jan 2010

On Thursday January 28, while I was in the act of a grueling 25 min walk through the heavy Tundra-like blizzard blowing viciously against my unguarded face, on my way from my apartment on Keats Way & University to my 8:30 AM lab in Chemistry-2, an interesting realization struck me. And that realization was so profound it gave me a surge of motivation that allowed me to trudge forward through the snow, one footstep at a time. I had come to terms with what Waterloo Engineering had done to me. And what it had done to me could not possibly be undone no matter how hard I tried. I had been annealed, strengthened, and hardened in ways I had never thought possible just 5 years ago.

Each year, thousands of to-be high school graduates try to decide which university they should go to. And every time, as long as preparation for post-university life was their most important criterion, I have whole-heartedly recommended Waterloo engineering to them. A lot of high school students are under the impression that if they can get through University, they should be fine after that. But there are really easy ways to get through University. And then, there are really hard ways to get through University.

What I'm proposing is that you pick the latter and take the tougher route. As one of my greatest mentors taught me many years ago that given all things equal, you should always take the harder and untrodden path whenever possible. The treasure chest, if one exists, is more likely to exist in an untrodden path, for if it existed in a trodden path, it is likely to have been pocketed by now.

When times are tough, the ones that are the most prepared, the ones who made it hard for themselves when they didn't have to, will be years ahead of those that got through University with the least amount of effort. This is because those who are prepared will already be pre-equipped with all the machinery needed to deal with the challenges of the future.

You want to treat university as a training ground. A place where you can learn all the skills you need in 5 years to succeed for the next 40 years of your life. If you don't extract every ounce of juice out of University, someone else will, and they'll be sure to beat you at it.

So if you are a grade 12 student and have received your acceptance letter into the University of Waterloo, I suggest you trash the passive approach of coasting through University by handling the sequence of requirements, one at a time. Instead, take a more active approach of challenging yourself as much as you can. Then after 5 years, when your training is finally complete, virtually everything you do will have a "been-there-done-that" feel to it, while everyone else will be scrambling to learn all these new skills they should have learned in University already.

To that end, I propose the following open challenge to any high-school student who would like to attempt it. This challenge isn't for the faint-hearted. It will require significant levels of determination, perseverance, courage, and discipline to carefully plan and flawlessly execute. The requirements of the challenge are as follows.

You must be officially enrolled at the University of Waterloo as an engineering student in one of these six well-known to be hard disciplines: electrical, computer, mechatronics, software, systems, or nano. There are quite possibly other disciplines that are just as hard, or even harder, but I possess sufficient evidence only for these six. The work load requirements of these disciplines should be enough to teach you all the time-management skills you'll ever need.

The reason I pick engineering over other faculties is because this is the only faculty at Waterloo that makes co-op mandatory which automatically makes work term reports mandatory. The work term report requirements for the above engineering programs are a lot more rigorous. Furthermore, PDENG, at least in its current incarnation, seems a lot more annoying than PDMATH or WatPD. The mandatory labs, pre-labs and lab reports can all get quite tedious. CSE requirements are a pain to fulfill. To make matters more interesting, the above six disciplines also have fairly rigorous requirements for their 4th year capstone/design project. Finally, the Faculty of Engineering is the only faculty that allows students to take extra courses for free.

The reason I pick the University of Waterloo is because I've spent five years here. This place has a harsh-enough Winter capable of sucking the soul out of you, especially if you've never experienced it before. No matter what engineering program you pick, you will have to spend at least 2 brutal winters here. So gear up.

Furthermore, Waterloo has a spine chilling prison-like feeling at times. This place can get quite depressing, stressful, painful, scary, and if you can deal with all of that, I am sure you will find almost every other place in North America a paradise. You will develop excellent stress-management skills. You will also learn how to take advantage of everything around you to keep you calm and composed without breaking. This includes great music, healthy relationships and friendships, and smart mentors.

You must be an out-of-province student. The farther away from Ontario you're from, the better. Extra points if you're an international student with no relatives in Ontario. Metaphorically speaking, you will be parachuted into the university, and you will know not a single person around you within a 100-mile radius. You will have 0 friends to rely on, and 0 shoulders to lean on. You will have 0 families and 0 relatives whose homes you can go to on the weekends. You will start from scratch on a fresh slate, man-vs-wild style.

You must complete all 6 co-op work terms even though the requirement is only 5. These jobs may be obtained in any manner possible, using Jobmine or not. However, each of your co-op terms must be in a city outside of both KW and your hometown, ideally somewhere that requires you to take a plane from either of these places. Also, you will have at least one well-paying full-time job offer before you graduate.

You must not fail any of your PDENG courses even once. This constraint forces you to turn PDENG into an optimization problem, instead of an easier hit-and-miss one.

You should pay for your tuition and living expenses yourself. Loans are acceptable, but you will pay them back when you make that money back during co-op terms. Your parents only give you a laptop and some clothes for free before you depart your home city. When you graduate, you should have a net positive income in your bank account. If you are paying international fees, you will pay back what a local student would've paid. These constraints force you to find jobs that are the most well-paying, to excel at your interviews, to be fiercely smarter than your classmates, to live frugally during your study and work terms, and to manage a tight budget.

You will take a minimum of 10 extra courses above and beyond your usual engineering work load for credit to master advanced time-management skills. These extra courses must come in the form of options or minors (like economics) which force you to plan your academics well in advance. Try to take at least one of these extra courses at the 300 or 400 level with a course code of CO, PMATH, or CS. None of these extra courses should be taken during your work terms. You may attempt to, but you'll be wasting money that way, which may make it harder for you to stay net positive. And of course, you are not allowed to fail even a single course you take or withdraw from any course after the no-penalty drop period. In taking all these extra courses, you will have learned to exploit technology to its fullest, and you will become a pro at scheduling and triaging.

Out of these minimum 10 extra courses, one of them will be taken not for credit. You will not enroll in this class, but will simply attend all lectures and complete all assignments. CS courses are particularly well-suited to this. Try and take a course that will teach you a lot just by attending lectures. So ensure the prof is a good lecturer. In fulfilling this requirement, you will learn skills that only a handful of students will ever learn.

Oh, and did I mention you need to maintain a cumulative average of 80%+? You want it to be high anyway otherwise the highest-paying employers are not going to interview you. And keep that job offer you get; you'll probably be taking it since your GPA will be much lower than that of your classmates to apply to grad school because of all the extra courses. And besides, no decent grad school will take you without prior research experience. Well, they might. So consider doing URAs or URIs during a few of your study terms.

Finally, you must graduate successfully and come out of all this with no addictions whatsoever: coffee, tea, caffeine, pop, alcohol, chocolate, sugar, drugs, or nicotine. You may consume these stimulants occasionally, but if I took these away from you for a week, you should still be able to perform at a decent level.

The last rule is that you must not tell anyone you are part of this challenge except for other people who are also attempting (or have attempted) the same challenge. The first rule of fight club is, of course, to not talk about fight club.

And then what? Once you have completed this intense 5-year challenge, you will have obtained all the necessary skills to deal with most, if not all, realities of life: pressure, stress, incompetence, bureaucracy, inflexibility, and many more — all vital skills very-much needed in the real world today. Most importantly, you will have learned so much about yourself, your strengths, and your capabilities that this knowledge will in itself become invaluable in every single future life decision.

Here's to the best Grade 12 students. Let the force and Suhosin be with you.

You'll be needing it.

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