Waterloo Sunset

It already seems like an eternity ago – from 2007 until 2012, I studied civil engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. I was recently contacted by the UW alumni department to reflect on my undergraduate experiences for prospective students. They eventually posted their Q&A online, so I thought I would share it here too, in case anyone reading this blog is contemplating a career in civil engineering or going to UW.

Why did you choose your undergraduate program?

Like a lot of civil engineers, I liked building sandcastles and playing with lego as a kid, so I dreamed of designing bridges when I grew up. My dad is also a civil engineer, so I had a lot of exposure to bridges and construction project as a child, and some of that definitely rubbed off on me. Waterloo had a reputation for its co-op program, and I liked the idea of being able to get some experience, pay off my tuition, and figure out what I actually wanted to do with my career. When it came time to decide my path, Waterloo was my number one choice.

How did you like your experience at UWaterloo?

My experiences at Waterloo were such an important part of shaping who I am today, both professionally and personally. It was hard work and in the process I think I learned much more about myself and how the world works than I ever did about beam vibration or soil mechanics. I was also very involved in extracurriculars during my time at Waterloo, as both editor of the Iron Warrior newspaper and one of the organizers for Orientation Week.

Goofing around and getting muddy for Orientation Week circa 2009
Goofing around and getting muddy for Orientation Week circa 2009

What were your favourite classes?

I had a minor crisis towards the end of my third year when I finally admitted to myself that I neither particularly liked nor was I particularly good at my structural engineering courses. So much for that dream of becoming a bridge designer… However, my friend Amir convinced me to drop my steel design elective and take Bill Annable’s river hydraulics course instead. That changed everything, opening my eyes to the world of fluvial geomorphology and sediment transport. James Craig’s contaminant transport course was also pivotal as it was my first proper introduction to numerical modelling of stuff floating around in water, something that forms the basis of my research today. It was also the first time that I considered, “Heh, maybe it would be cool to go to grad school someday…” Ten years later, I am living on the other side of the world and pursuing a career path in academia.

How did the friends you made at UWaterloo inspire you throughout your undergraduate experience?

Whether we were up until midnight working in the computer lab or out until past midnight making a different sort of memory, my friends were a source of stability and support throughout my time at Waterloo. I am still friends with most of them today, although unfortunately I don’t get to see them very often since I moved overseas.

What is the biggest lesson you learned from co-op?

Try new things and get out of town if you can. Co-op is like a big buffet, and it gives you a chance to try a little bit of everything to learn what you like and where you want to be. The world is a much bigger place than southwestern Ontario, and if you have the chance to do a co-op somewhere far away, give it a shot! For that matter, also consider going on exchange.

What is your occupation now?

I am in the final months of a PhD in coastal engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and am also employed part-time at Deltares, an independent water research institute here in Delft. Much of my research deals with adapting to climate change and sea level rise, and I’m doing a bit of teaching now, too. We’re trying to better understand how waves and tides move sand around on the Dutch coast in order to keep everyone safe from coastal erosion and flooding. I will continue my research in a postdoc position here in the fall.

Did your undergraduate program play a role in where you are today? How?

Of course! After my introduction to river engineering, I floated downstream to coastal engineering, a path that I reached only after narrowing down what I actually liked via co-op. Closing doors can be just as important as opening them.

List 3 lessons you’d like to share with the current undergraduate students.

  1. Get involved in extra curricular activities. It’s important to stay on top of your studies, but there is more to university than just hitting the books. Getting involved can help you discover new interests, grow as a person, improve your skills and CV, and most importantly to meet friends and have fun. I’ve forgotten most of my linear algebra but will always cherish the memories I made with those friends.
  2. Learn more about mental health, both for yourself and for how you can support your friends and colleagues. Engineering can sometimes be a stressful career, and life is full of surprises. Learning how to look out for the people around you and take care of yourself is one of the most useful life skills that you can develop.
  3. Never give up a chance to be kind.
Sunset on a dusty road to a construction site in Middle-of-Nowhere, northern Alberta during my first co-op term in 2008.
Sunset on a dusty road to a construction site in Middle-of-Nowhere, northern Alberta during my first co-op term in 2008.

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