Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

The Case for Waterloo

10 Aug 2009

Our world is shrinking quite rapidly. The school we go to isn't so important anymore. It's the people we hang out with, the people we eat with, the people we scrutinize the world with that matter more. It is to this straight-forward, yet non-obvious observation that I dedicate my argument that it would've been impossible for me to have chosen a better school than the University of Waterloo in the Winter of 2005.

I've never had such mixed feelings about anything like this before. Or even to any degree like this before. Leaving home was truly a remarkable experience, but I could have gotten that experience joining any university in Canada east of Manitoba. It didn't have to be Waterloo.

I'm still very much glad for having chosen Waterloo over the famed MIT/Harvard/Stanford trio. But I owe you an explanation for that. My friends keep telling me I've wasted my entire undergraduate career by virtue of having chosen Waterloo, but I beg to differ. Going to Waterloo meant that I've gotten to be friends with some of the smartest people I ever will meet. The kind of friends that are super high-throughput, heavy risk takers, and courageous beyond measure. And that's even after the fact that my definition of smartness is so different from everyone else's that no one actually shares my definition except for the people I consider smart.

I feel, in some very specific ways, that Waterloo is better than the MIT/Harvard/Stanford trio. And this is even after de-biasing myself because I went to Waterloo and that I will have paid $80,000 in total for the entire process. But then again, I only know one friend who went to Harvard. And maybe 2-3 who went to MIT and another few who went to Stanford. But compare that with knowing 350 people from Waterloo. So if anything, it probably is a case of mismatched sampling..

All these people who went to MIT/Harvard/Stanford, hereby referred to as MHS, are all ridiculously smart, don't get me wrong. But only in the layman's definition of smartness. Perhaps in a more academic and entrepreneurial way. But not in a fundamental, survivalist, "hard-core" kind of way.

The problem rises from the MHS guys being spoiled by going to a school with an over-abundance of resources and facilities. Waterloo, on the other hand, has almost no resources. Not that many photocopiers, not that many scanners, expensive printers, insufficient study space, crammed residences, over-priced food and inadequate lab space. So we've learned to be super frugal as a consequence. We've learned to make the best out of what's given to us. We've learned to squeeze the juice out of every little thing that comes our way. And we've learned to efficiently game the flawed North American educational system. Throw anything at us, and we'll learn to deal with it. Make an exam twice as long, then make it twice as hard, and then give us half the amount of time, and we'll still learn to deal with it. We're an army of extremely resilient soldiers that can fight on any terrain and in any climate.

But out of everything I like about Waterloo, the thing I like the most is that not many people know all that much about Waterloo or the truly remarkable people that graduate from it each year. And this is really great for me. When I go out into the real world, I would cringe if people said to me "you're from Waterloo, you must be smart." I want my reputation to come from who I am and how well I solve technical problems. Not from which school I went to.

So yes, in some sense, I'm throwing away what I like most by writing this very post and putting it on the internet for public scrutiny. But since it's only going to be a 100 or so people, mostly Waterloo-goers, it seems fairly contained and I think I can live with that. I'd be the first person to be sad if Waterloo became as popular as the MIT, Harvard and Stanford trio are today. I want us to remain a secret-society. I want us to be the unsung heroes, the iron fists masked in velvet gloves.

But this post was meant to summarize one thing, and one thing only: If you're looking for some serious academic rigour, some serious intellectual drill, the physical counterpart of which they make you go through in army cadets and bootcamps, and if you're interested in one or all of math, computer science, or engineering, then I would ask you to apply to Waterloo today. Apply today, enlist in their co-op program, and look forward to having 5 years of intense "fun". And I can assure you that you will come thanking me 5 years from today.

Napoleon may have lost in the battle of Waterloo in Belgium back in 1815. But here in Canada, right now, I certainly haven't. Five years haven't flown by without utility.

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