Like most students, when I first came to Waterloo, I had very high hopes for coop. The one student in my program I knew from my high school had a fantastic set of co-ops, working at companies like Apple right off the bat. It seemed like no matter what, everything about Waterloo was a place of dreams in many ways. Much like everyone else, I came in with an unreasonably high admissions average.
Like most students, I thought I was at the very top. I thought I’d ace my courses, I’d get a co-op where they’d fly me off in a private jet to corporate housing with unlimited cake, and party every day. I thought every day would be super sunny, and I could start it with a refreshing coffee watching the sun rise. The “experience Waterloo” video from their webpage right now reflects this in some sense.
It turns out that isn’t true. Turns out the cake is a lie, half the year is grumpy and miserable, a quarter is goose season, and the best part of your summer will be spent in a windowless room, working. Late nights working means the sunrise is more often seen after a long night of panic in a lab than a relaxing start. Co-ops are often spent working on an internal project that’ll see neither glory, nor the light of day. At least it beats working at the old grocery store like my friend at UofT.
A common platitude is “happiness equals reality minus expectations”. Maybe you read it in a book, maybe you heard it when Elon Musk smoked weed with Joe Rogan. Doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, what’s unexpectedly ambiguous is whose expectations take away from happiness. Many parents make major sacrifices to allow their children to go to Waterloo. Some students pay for tuition from their parent’s retirement plan. Some parents got PhDs and demand their student must be the absolute best.
Of course, for many, they don’t even need to look at their parents’ expectations to be unhappy. While it’s true that students were among the best in high school, it turns out not everyone can be number one in university. In fact, half the students are going to be below average, and unless you intend to work very hard, you probably won’t be the best anymore. Even worse, many students did very similar things in high school. Most people might play an instrument, have been a life guard, and even been on their robots team. It did a great job to help the entirety of Waterloo really stand out from their peers.
My peer who had the great co-op was extraordinary, even for Waterloo. Of course, many of the smartest people are humble, so I didn’t realize it until it was too late. I later found out in high school he singlehandedly built a technical and spent his summers in high school doing professional development. Me? Well, I can do a pretty nice backstroke. It turns out employers really didn’t care all that much my swimming, proficiency in Microsoft Word® (thanks CECA), or my excellent communication skills developed by working on various team efforts on school projects.
Of course, no one by default deserves anything. The school shouldn’t give rank 1 because I want it, and I can’t imagine that I’d spend money on someone for being great at using word editors. Unfortunately, at the time it were my expectations weren’t what I wanted. All things being considered, being in good academic standing and having relevant work experience is very much worthwhile. Many people have failed, and if you’re ready this, you likely haven’t failed out (yet).
Throughout all this time, unfortunately it’s never easy to reconcile one’s expectations with reality. In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), the authors discuss how people’s expectations of reality are only emboldened by evidence to the contrary. Whether it’s the belief that Iraq possessed WMDs or you’ll study for finals before exam season, evidence against your beliefs only creates more motivated reasoning. It’s especially hard reconciling against what you want because it’ll make you sad. Maybe that’d make you a failure. Maybe you just aren’t as good as you think are you. Whatever.
Perhaps whatever Brad Pitt’s rant was in Fight Club was real. We aren’t all ninja rockstar x10 developers. Maybe our train just hasn’t come yet. Who knows? There’s still another term, until there isn’t. I guess maybe university isn’t about your dreams coming true, but perhaps about setting realistic expectations.