What I would do differently

September 27, 2008

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney Harris

Suddenly I have realized that it has been over a year since graduation. In fact, I started working full-time exactly one year and one month ago. The class of 2008 convocated this past summer and a whole new batch of students is already well into the fall term.

A few months ago, the father of one of my brother’s friends called me from Toronto. After all the expected queries regarding majors, courses, residence, meal plans, and the co-op process, he asked me a question that caught me off guard: “If you were in my son’s shoes, applying to university programs in your final year of high school with four to five years of undergraduate studies ahead of you, what would you do differently?”

While one cannot go back in time to change the past, hindsight and introspection into one’s past can provide insight and guidance for the present and the future. For this reason, hypothetical and backward-looking questions can still have real value in decision making for the present and the future.

Seemingly bad decisions can roughly be classified into two types: those that seem unsound in hindsight and those that were already unsound at the time they were made. Decisions can only be made by evaluating the information available at the time of deciding, so those decisions that seem unsound in hindsight should not be considered to have been bad decisions at all.

What would I do differently if I were to repeat my undergraduate education? When decisions are put in proper context, I realize that I did not make too many bad ones. I chose to study a subject I enjoy and focussed on academics in my first year, which helped me finance my education through scholarships and obtain interviews for co-op jobs that interested me. I was active in groups and causes that I cared about, such as Amnesty International, the Math Students’ Society (MathSoc), Orientation Week, math tutoring, and residence life at WCRI. I had enough time to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones. I stayed healthy and avoided the so-called “frosh 15” by a wide margin. Through Campus Recreation, I learned salsa dancing, continued my martial arts training from high school, and became a better swimmer.

Even then, I think I could have derived some benefit from knowing how much or how little certain things mattered. If I could go back in time, I would perhaps pick a different major, take more courses outside my faculty, and spend more time working on my long term goals and pursuing my passions.

If I could redo my undergraduate career, I am happy to say that of all schools and programs available, I would still choose to pursue a degree in math at the University of Waterloo. I may pick a different major such as computer science, operations research or combinatorics and optimization instead of actuarial science, but even this is far from certain, because I would then have a different set of career opportunities available to me. I would not get the exposure to the financial services industry that led to my current line of work. Still, the idea of going to university without spending so many hours studying for professional exams seems quite appealing in hindsight.

Besides picking a different major, I would also try and take more courses outside the Faculty of Mathematics. As much as I relished my math courses, electives definitely helped me round out my education. I would take courses in psychology, languages, geography, and especially the multidisciplinary course in multimedia design of learning materials, ARTS 303.

Looking beyond academics, I would distill my myriad interests into four or five major passions and focus my time and energy on them. I feel like I may have spread myself too thin by being indecisive and pursuing too many hobbies and interests. I should have perhaps focussed on swimming, salsa dancing, cooking, and exploring the outdoors.

Today I feel as though hiking is an excellent way to combat stress and reunite with nature, whereas the other four interests are all useful social or life skills.

All in all, I am quite happy with my five years of university life and co-op terms. As a result, the list of things I would do similarly is much longer than the list of things I would do differently if I were to start my undergraduate career today.


For want of a pencil a future was lost

May 29, 2008

Before I could think of starting my own blog, “The Guitar That Was Never Played” brought to mind those unfortunate souls who are unable to articulate their thoughts for one reason or another.

Modern life in a developed society has provided me with access to powerful tools of articulation that I often take for granted. While I debate whether or not blogging is a good use of my time, billions of people, many of them children, remain illiterate and struggle to understand our world.

When I visited India last summer, I tried to discover the causes of illiteracy, especially in rural areas. I was fortunate to be able to visit a village in the state of Karnataka. From my conversations with some of the locals, I gathered that one major obstacle to literacy is a lack of basic materials such as notebooks and pencils. Further inquiry revealed that the situation is by no means unique to that village; it is a nationwide pandemic.

The government offers free schooling to children throughout India, but abject poverty still makes it difficult for many of them to attend school. They cannot afford school supplies and must often rely on the kindness of donors to provide their schools with paper, pencils, erasers, and notebooks.

Investing in a notebook and a few pencils for every child in the developing world could potentially yield huge returns for future generations. The current situation is particularly disappointing in light of how much money is spent on frivolous doodads in our developed society. For example, sales of ring tones in the United States alone exceeded half a billion dollars in 2007. The average cost of a ring tone (roughly $1-3 or Rs.40-120 in Indian rupees) could provide a child with basic school supplies for a full semester.

My next goal in this area is to get back in touch with people from that village to try to find a scalable albeit low-tech solution to this grotesque shortfall. While the current state of affairs may be deplorable, it can certainly be changed through co-operative effort.

Imagine the stories and poems that will be written, essays articulated, pictures drawn, inventions invented, discoveries made, and friendships forged when millions of children are provided with simple tools to help them learn and grow everyday.