I didn’t even know you could do a semester abroad in Barbados until this interview with undergraduate co-op student Sonal Patel. Read on to find out why she chose UWaterloo English, and if Barbados had anything to do with it. And thank you to Sonal for participating in Words in Place!–JLH
JLH: When you were thinking about university, which other ones did you look at? What made you finally decide on UWaterloo?
SP: When I was considering universities, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the future and that’s exactly the reason I choose Waterloo. It gave me the flexibility I was looking for to keep my doors open to any career. The other universities I applied to (York, Brock, and UofT) all had great programs, but were very career specific. With Waterloo I had an option to do a double major in English and Legal Studies, because at that time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a career in teaching or attend law school post-undergrad. Waterloo had a variety of options for majors, minors, and specializations which catered to my interest in exploring various field simultaneously.
JLH: Depending on how you structure your degree, there’s some flexibility in choosing certain English courses: how do you decide which ones appeal to you?
SP: I chose many of my courses based on conversations with senior students and English advisors. This was a good strategy because many of the descriptions online are vague, but through conversations I was able to identify if the course content would appeal to me. For example, I was always interested in media studies/relations. UWaterloo has many courses relating to media studies but some are heavily focused on digital media development whereas others are focused on print and media strategies. In order to get a better understanding of courses like these, I met with English academic advisors who were able to explain the objectives and content of the courses. In other cases, I was directly connected to the professor teaching the course. Another good resource was online syllabi. The syllabus usually had a detailed description of course content, assignments, and learning objectives. All these tools helped me find courses which met my interests and preferences and provided me with the flexibility I was looking for. The courses were so flexible that I had the opportunity to study abroad in Barbados for a term!
JLH: You were one of the 2015 English grade average award winners–congratulations! What do you think is key to your academic success?
SP: Thank you! I think the two key secrets to academic success are time management and consistently interacting with professors, teaching assistants, and/or senior students. Firstly, time management has been very important in my undergraduate degree. I have always had other, non-academic, responsibilities and goals. At first, it was challenging to juggle multiple tasks and try to accommodate all aspects of my life while remaining a straight A student. At times my personal and social life became a distraction. I overcame these challenges by managing my time better, using calendars. At the beginning of every term, I would sit down with syllabi from all my courses and a monthly calendar. I would enter all assignments, tests, exams, and reading due dates into the calendars and post the calendars in my course binders. These calendars really helped me meet deadlines and ensure that I was prioritizing weeks in advance. On a daily basis, I would manage my time by telling myself that if I spend, say, 2-3 hours working on an assignment during the day, I would be able to relax in the evening. One common mistake that many students make (I used to as well) is overworking the brain by constantly working on an assignment or studying for prolonged periods. I realized that this method doesn’t lead to maximum success because your brain becomes tired. To overcome this, I began managing my time, working on an assignment for about 2 hours and then taking a short break and moving onto another subject, and then coming back to the first assignment the following day with fresh eyes. I realized that with this method I was able to catch many mistakes and discrepancies that I did not necessarily see the prior day.
Secondly, a key to success would be getting assistance from professors, teaching assistants, and senior students. Many students are afraid to approach professors to clarify class content or ask questions. However, a major reason I have been successful during my undergraduate career is because I have approached these individuals to ask questions, clarify course material, access resources, receive feedback on assignments/exams, or even have a casual conversation. I have had many useful conversations with professors that stimulated my thoughts and to a certain extent influenced many of my academic/career decisions. I think the key is to remember that these individuals are there to help us succeed!
JLH: You’re also in the co-op stream: has anything surprised you about co-op? Things you might not have thought of when you first enrolled?
SP: When I first accepted my offer to UWaterloo, I was not part of the co-op program. I enrolled into the co-op program at the end of my first year, because I was unsure of the career path I wanted to take. I thought maybe co-op would help me decide what I want to do in the future. In hindsight, co-op was one of the best decisions I made. One of the important lessons I’ve learnt through my co-op experiences is not what I want to do, which is what I was expecting, but what I don’t want to be doing in the future. Co-op has helped me get ahead of the game in many different ways. I have been able to enhance my degree and professional experience through a variety of private and public sector experience. I have also been able to form a strong networking group to connect with others regarding post-grad and career advice. I have been able to set goals through professional development initiatives and hone my resumé and interview skills so that I stand out. Through co-op, I learned how the “real world” functions through experiencing different types of corporate cultures, industries, and professional interactions. Without co-op, I would still be that lost, hopeless student who had no idea what my future looked like! Now, I know exactly what I want to and don’t want to do, have goals in my professional life, and strive to meet those goals every day!