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a letter to my first year-self
learnings I would tell my 18-year old self navigating engineering, relationships, work, and life at UWaterloo
So, I actually finished a first draft of this post, at the beginning of my second year of university. But it didn't feel right to post it yet. Now I'm in my final year of university, and starting to meet a ton of first-year students on campus asking "what advice would you give your younger self?" it seemed timely to revisit this post again - which is perfect because I have many more things to add.
Note, that the things I'm writing here aren't necessarily universal truths, but moreso anecdotes from my personal experiences or things I've learned from friends close to me.
school doesn’t matter as much as you think it matters.
I think it's fair to say that everyone goes through a universally humbling experience in the first year of university. It was rough, and I still think my first term of engineering at UWaterloo was one of the hardest school terms I ever had to go through.
I failed a physics midterm and barely passed my calculus midterm. I remember sitting in my Solidworks class, seeing students hack away at remodeling the next CN tower when I couldn’t even visualize where the first cut would go.
It becomes clear who’s learned these concepts already in high school and who’s never heard of the terms before. In this state, it’s easy to compare yourself and let the imposter syndrome kick in.
But things are going to be okay.
I promise you, that once you identify gaps in the fundamentals and make a plan to fill those gaps, you'll be able to level off and build the foundation you’ll need for the rest of your university career.
Learn as much as you can, ask for help from your profs and TAs, and get a tutor if you need it - really it’s not a bad thing to need help. Do whatever you can just to get through the semester and use it as a process to learn how you learn.
Make mistakes and embrace them. Just barely passing your first term isn't going to ruin the rest of your university career. It'll humble you, show you who your true friends are who can support you through these tough times, and most of all, realize that failure is a normal part of life.
You are meant to be here, at the end of the day - don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
no test, assignment, or quiz is ever worth losing sleep over.
It felt so normalized to be in computer labs past 2am in first year or staying up all night trying to complete a problem set. Work smarter, not harder. A good night of sleep is probably the best thing you need to revisit the content again with a fresh eye. Try to space out your learning as much as you can, so you future self will thank you for not cramming everything until the last minute.
don’t do things because you think you have to
Don't rush on relationships. I've never had any actual relationships in high school, so going into university I went in really wanting that to change. Society’s books and movies made me romanticize finding a partner in university.
Be your best self and put yourself out there, but focus your time on enjoying university, finding things that will make you happy, and becoming more secure with yourself. Expand your heart fostering amazing friendships instead of spending your time pining over the same people who won't care about you at the end of the day.
When you rush into things, you don't think properly. And if it's your first relationship, you'll think that whatever experiences you're having right now are the norm of a healthy relationship, when they very much could not be. Take time to learn about what you truly want from a relationship before settling for something that might not be the best for you.
ditch the checkboxes
I've always been a lists person through and through. Just look at my notes app or flip through the pages in my bullet journal. I had this list I always found myself coming back to in my journal: "things I look for in a guy", which I've been iterating since forever. It's been my prized page, full of chicken scratches and observations I've had all throughout my teen years on what my dream partner would be.
After many failed talking stages and finally experiencing a great love of my own - I realized that finding a good partner is a lot more complex than checking off all the boxes on a list.
There are great qualities that you might be attracted to that you could hypothetically list out, but I feel like what really matters the most are things you can't really measure. It depends on the type of relationship you're looking for, but if it's a long-term partner I see that it's someone who can take care of you (and you can take care of them!), treats you with kindness, understands you, and is open with you.
Now, it doesn't really matter that you both clicked on talking about music for three hours. It doesn’t matter if they’re on the soccer team. That conversation and those qualities fizzle out. You're not going to always talk about intellectually curious things when you’re in a relationship all the time. It's your life, how they deal with your emotions of sadness, happiness, anger, and all the baggage that makes you a human being, whether they will be there to support you and love you for who you are.
That's not really something you can put on a list.
see how they treat other people
As Sirius Black says, “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals”.
Remember, if someone wants to get into a relationship with you, they obviously want to please you and put on the best front possible.
liking someone who's unavailable: get over them.
This is point blank - they're not going to leave their girlfriend for you. And if they do, would that really be someone you'd want to be in a relationship with in the first place? What if that happens again with someone else?
Being close friends will just hurt even more, because you're going to overanalyze every single interaction you have with them, thinking it's more when it's really not.
Who knows, maybe you could find your path back to each other later in life, but you shouldn’t be waiting around for that to happen. Sometimes you need to let go of the things you love most, even a friendship to lose those feelings.
growing up together with someone is really special
From feeling FOMO of not being in a relationship, there's also FOMO while being in a relationship (yes it never ends!). Trends like "hot girl summer" romanticize being single/having options, and choosing to be with someone early can feel like you're closing a lot of doors to the "next best thing".
It's really underrated but I feel like no one talks about the feeling of "growing up" with the person you're in love with enough. You grow together and it truly is a special thing to have someone on your side who's been with you since the beginning. Who chose you before you were anything - before money, status, beauty or any of those other things became real.
there's no such thing as a dream job
When I first got into university, I kept thinking each internship I got was my dream job. But I slowly realized, there is no such thing as a dream job. At the end of the day, a job is something you do to make someone else money, and businesses will always put their interests first over yours. No role is ever perfect, and don't define yourself by your job - you'll never know when it'll be gone. The mass layoffs and market conditions over the pass two years made this even more clear.
explore as much as you can to figure out what you like
Internships are for exploring. Try different roles, different industries, and different cities. Try venture capital, software engineering, product, and hardware. Work in Europe, San Francisco, New York, Asia, and Toronto - try them all if you get the chance to.
work with great, and kind people
Every role I've taken on was because I enjoyed the people so much, and they matter so much more than the product you're working on. Work with people that inspire you and are great human beings.
meet different people
Put yourself out there, get involved in different clubs and communities, and try to make friends with different interests that will push you to be your best self and you’ll all grow together. If you’re always with the same people, it’ll end up being an echo chamber of similar ideas all the time.
if you ever get the opportunity to, move to new cities alone
One of the best ways to make friends is to put yourself in situations when you're forced to make new friends. I've experienced the most personal growth ever in my life when I moved to a new place completely on my own living with people I didn't know. Having the ride or dies is nice (and you can still have them!) but it's invigorating to occasionally have experiences like these that put yourself outside your comfort zone and build your independence outside the crew you already have.
don't be afraid to say hi first
A lot of the best friends I have today are a result of me reaching out and saying hi first - crazy to think that they might not even be in my life if I didn't take the leap to reach out to them. Stop sitting around and waiting for life to happen, waiting to be invited, and waiting for someone to want to be friends with you. It takes effort to receive effort back. Host things, invite people, go to events, introduce your friends to other friends, and say hi to the people you come across on the internet.
less is more
I've slowly realized I don't need a lot of people to be happy - I feel much more fulfilled with a small circle of really close friends than a large amount of not so close ones. Prioritize depth of friendships over depth - who are the people you'll cry to? The ones who know you so well they know your flaws too. Friends that you don't need be in the same class or city to keep in touch.
things are going to be okay.
I wish I could give my first-year self a big hug. Conflict is inevitable - especially when navigating friendships, love, and opening yourself up. When you're vulnerable to people, you also make yourself vulnerable to getting hurt. But be kind to yourself - you're 17/18, and it's natural to make mistakes.
Trust me, in a few years, the thing that felt like the biggest weight on your shoulders in first year will be completely irrelevant. And the people you were the most afraid of running into will barely be in your life anymore.
family is everything
Family is everything. It was a hard lesson to learn, but it really hit me that my mom and sister will be the people who will be 100% there for me, regardless of anything.
I know not everyone has the luxury of having a good relationship with their family, but I just wanted to express my gratitude for them and how much it means to me.
I feel like every summer I’ve been trying to do everything but live at home, since the 10th grade. Now I’m realizing, once you get older, you’ll have your own family to take care of. Your career could take you halfway across the world. The time you have with them is scarce. Don’t run away. Cherish the time you have with them.
Soon you won’t have someone to make your favourite chicken curry or make ginger tea when you’re sick. Someone to hold you and tell you that everything’s going to be okay. Someone who always remembers your favourite chocolate is cookies and cream and always buys a box of them every Halloween even though you’ve outgrown trick or treating.
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other life updates on my end! 💖
back in waterloo for the next 8 months finishing up my last year of SYDE. it’s been surreal being back on campus after a year away, and bittersweet seeing all the first years that came in which inspired this post.
started a photography account: @memoriesbymathu as a home for all the photos I've been taking. Feel free to check it out!
committed to the bit and helped make a fake steakhouse real for a day in NYC it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and im so glad I made the trek out of waterloo to be a part of the scheme!
now it’s my last year, im trying all the things I never got to do while I’m on campus. I’m surprisingly part of a basketball intramural team which has been a lot of fun, and doing a URA (research assistant) at the social intelligence robotics research lab at Waterloo
working on my final year capstone design project! it’s been really cool getting to work on an multidisciplinary project and finally apply everything we’ve learned from our degree into creating something meaningful. more to come soon :)
thanks for reading <3