(thanks Sally for pushing me to write this)
It’s true! I love and value my Social Science and Humanities degree from one of world’s most notable STEM schools, the University of Waterloo. It isn’t that its Social Science and Humanities programs are bad, they just pale in comparison to the behemoth engineering and math programs we have at UW. But I love my degree all the same, and I have few regrets about coming to Waterloo to study the humanities and social sciences.
Let me tell you this, though: I didn’t always feel this way. I think often of this one foggy night in March 2013: I’m standing on the roof of the Village 1 Great Hall, watching the lights of the QNC crane and DP filter faintly through the mist. I have no idea what I’m doing: I feel lost, I feel terribly lonely, I feel horribly out of place in Southern Ontario and I feel like I’ve made a huge mistake in coming here. Or maybe even a little huge mistake.
I think of the transfer student acceptance offer I have from the University of Ottawa in my Gmail inbox. I think of how nice it would be to be home, to be with my friends from back home, to be able to easily follow my present aspirations of being a public servant in some nameless Ottawa downtown office.
I didn’t go, obviously. I stayed and I don’t entirely know why, to be honest. If I could though, I’d go back in time to that night I stood on top V1, gripping the iron bar in front of me, letting myself feel the chill of new spring– I’d tell myself, firstly, to stop eating literally everything and hit the gym (I gained freshman fifteen with a vengeance), but also to be patient because fuck, you’re going to love this school so so so much.
And past me would probably say, in my then-new, uncomfortably tight (freshman 15, remember) UWaterloo off-shoot black Bench windbreaker, Will I really, though?
Absolutely, 100% yes, I’d say.
I want to be a public servant though, past me would say, I don’t think it’d be in my best interest to stay here if I can’t keep up my French. Besides which, I’m pretty lonely and I don’t think I’ve made many friends. And I feel like a BA from this institution is kind of shit.
A BA from this school is not shit, I’d say, and hand past me this Buzzfeed-style listicle (and to be frank, past me probably would have accepted it with a sneer of disgust because Buzzfeed Canada’s presently amazing roster of journalists was devoid of real substance back in 2013). At this point, the time-space tube through which I jumped would probably close and suck me back to 2016– I imagine it’d be similar to the way Sophie Hatter is sucked back to the present when her ring snaps in Howl’s Moving Castle.
And past me would read this:
You’ll find yourself in UW’s many faculty and cross-campus communities, but especially your small faculty community, so filled with excellent people.
You’re so lonely now—so lonely. You think about empty winter darkness and ache for high school when you’d walk around the halls and recognize nearly everyone, and feel so home in the music department, in the library, in the fields outside, in the auditorium. You feel a dull emptiness where you felt joy. But just wait a few more months until the blurred faces around you in the lecture theatres start sliding into focus and you start meeting people in your classes, in your program, in your faculty when you do Orientation and society work—you’ll realize how small the faculty really is, how lovely the people around you really are, and you’ll begin to dread how much you’re going to miss it when you’re on the cusp on fourth year.
You’ll have amazing work experiences that you otherwise would have never been exposed to.
You’ll work public sector for the likes of Industry Canada and private sector for freaking Microsoft—you’ll truly get the best of both worlds. Do you think you’d be able to get a good private sector job if you’d gone to a social science-focused school?
UW’s reputation is so fire in the mid 2010s.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (oh yes, your least favourite 2013 Liberal leadership candidate will be prime minister #ripmartha #ripmarc) will name-drop your university at Davos. Your school will be ranked #9 on the Parchment List. Sam Altman will talk about your future alma mater in the New York Times. Who cares what your degree is when your university is so well-regarded? Actually, probably lots of people… but that reputation opens the school up to a multitude of opportunities, some of which you will have access to and get involved in.
Many of your profs will be exceptional.
You’ll have professors like Brian Orend (who trademarked the Cadbury purple and was on an episode of Ideas, and with whom you’ll exchange loads of emails chatting about comic books and life), Kathleen Rodenburg (who was executive for Campbell soup and kindly help you out with your Microsoft interview), Emanuel Carvalho (who literally has a degree in exactly what you want to do, and talks with you often about the state of the program), among so so so many others who will help you broaden your horizons. They will be excellent instructors, but even more excellent contacts and mentors to have in your movement upwards and onwards.
You’ll never be able to find the unique combination of your programs in any other university.
Seriously. Economics and Rhetoric (and where would you even find another Rhetoric program)? A smidgen of Business? Where else would you find something like that?
The culture of innovation and real-life applicability will infect you and drive you.
You’ll have a friend named Joel in a few months and he’ll groan every single time you mention “innovation”. But think about this: you’ll realize that innovation is really just creative problem-solving, and you’ll realize how much you love problem-solving, turning issues around and around in your head, picking at them until you get to their core. And you’ll realize how much you love solving them, doing research with those skills you’ve picked up in your Economics and your coop terms, and convincing other people to implement your solutions with communication skills you’ll pick up in Rhetoric. And, more than anything, that ~~culture of innovation~~, that focus on real-world and real-life applicability, will infect you—you’ll think constantly of how to make things real and how to make things work in the post-graduate world beyond academic rumination.
A BA from UW will teach you self-respect.
Hey. In high school, you were top shit. Well, if not top shit, then definitely in the upper tier. You breezed through your classes. You were in a well-regarded music program. You were involved. But you’re going to realize that this is an institution that won’t focus on you and what you’re studying for reasons like “it doesn’t fetch economically spectacular results like STEM programs to” and “it doesn’t tangibly affect the things around you in the same way discoveries in STEM can” but you’ll learn to articulate your own value to those around you, and you’ll learn to internalize it to make you stronger. You’ll learn to turn a blind eye to the Arts-haters on OMGUW and Reddit too. That’ll come with time.
It’ll also teach you humility.
Like I said, you’re not top shit anymore, in a bunch of ways. The traditional Chinese doctor your Mom takes you to when you’re on coop in Ottawa will look at you with some look of pity and disdain when you tell her you’re at Waterloo… but not for Engineering, for English and Economics! A home-friend will tell you he will never understand why you didn’t go to Ottawa when you could’ve. People will barely bat an eye when you tell them you’re in a combined social sciences and arts degree at UW. It’ll bother you—it’ll keep you up at night in your first year, worrying about how you’ll get anything of worth accomplished in your life with an Arts degree from Waterloo.
But then you’ll realize, some day in first year, that it’s the person and not the degree that finds success. You’ll keep this tattooed on the walls of your heart and use it to push you to be the best and do the best and to make every single seemingly menial task and so-called useless class worth your time—because you’re not above it. You’re in the thick of it. You’re here to learn. You’ll also painfully learn some really difficult lessons in pushing past the pride to work your butt off and move beyond failure too, which’ll make you an even stronger, less naive person that you were before.
You’ll find what you truly want to do.
You think you want to be a public servant, and in a way, you always will. But how much is attributed to the lack of visible choices you had? Like when you wanted to be a journalist, or a teacher?
You’ll do everything that I just wrote about—you’ll learn such a huge, wide variety of things, and you’ll have access to an enormous amount of extra-curricular experiences (you’ll lobby Queen’s Park, you’ll write a policy paper, you’ll hire and manage over 150 of your peers, you’ll organize events for your entire program, you’ll community build…). You’ll absorb it all, you’ll love most of it, and you’ll reflect hard on the things that you loved about each of them. Out of this, you’ll find what you truly, truly love, and what you truly, truly want to do, and it’ll be like the heavens themselves have opened up to you. You’ll feel complete, you’ll feel found, but best of all, you’ll be happy because the future is scary, exciting, coloured in and tangible enough for you to attain.
And that’s all because you got this useless Arts degree from a STEM-intensive university.