It’s been over a month since I finished the final semester of my undergrad in environmental studies at the University of Waterloo. I am now permanently in Toronto where I share a tiny one-bedroom + den condo with the boyfriend. I’m no urbanite, but I’ve come to realize that city-living has its perks, and my lifestyle is getting a little greener as each day passes.
I am now vertical-living, riding my bicycle everywhere, doing my grocery shopping at the local farmers’ market, and appreciating the surprising amount of green space here I never knew about. I am also volunteering and getting to know the green business community in Toronto. I can’t really complain about life right now, except for the fact that I’m still unemployed and constantly hearing, “You have such an amazing resume – so much experience and positive references!! I’m sure you’ll find a job soon!” Well, ‘soon’ has turned into a few months shy of A YEAR searching for a full-time job. It’s the worst time to find a job with meaning, but I’m not discouraged yet.
I convocated on Tuesday and since then have been reflecting lots on the past five years and what this degree really means to me. A ton of money was spent and many tears too. It can be very hard to find a balance between academic priorities, co-op applications and interviews, family problems at home, relationships, and figuring out what the hell you want to do with your life.
In hindsight, I want to list a few things I learned along the way which could be helpful to current and prospective university students.
Five Takeaways from my Undergraduate Career
1. Network from the Get-Go
The first-year of university can be a difficult transition. Moving to Waterloo was not only an immense culture shock for me (coming from a village of ~1000 people in Eastern Ontario), but also an alienating experience sharing a classroom and a professor with hundreds of other students. While residence helped me meet new friends, I feel like I should have made more effort to connect with my professors and join a club or two and start connecting with people who shared my academic and personal interests. Honestly, the profs don’t bite, and they appreciate your willingness to get to know them and demonstrate your interest for the course material/themes/research. It is also helpful later when you have to find an advisor for your thesis, or references for your grad school applications.
2. Use Volunteering, Part-Time Work, Co-op, or your Free Summers to Find RELEVANT Work Experience
Thousands of students across Canada are graduating with little to no relevant work experience. In the unemployment situation we find ourselves, it is important to use the free time we have to find relevant work and/or side projects to build our resumes early on and stand out from the crowd of applicants. There are tons of summer jobs (especially in the environmental field) offered thanks to government subsidies. You can also win over some potential employers by informing them of the tax breaks they could get from hiring a summer/co-op student. If you can’t find a full-time internship in your field, look for part-time work, volunteer somewhere, or start your own project!
Now is the time to do it. Whether it’s an exchange or co-op placement, a week-long trip between semesters, or a vacation during the summer months, once you start working full-time it will be more difficult to schedule time to do these things. I know not everyone will have the opportunity and money to do this (I dipped into my student loans and co-op salary for all of my trips), but if you can, it is SUCH a wonderful experience and a refreshing break from the stresses of academia.
4. Eat Well and Get Some Exercise
It is very easy to slack off on meals and exercise when you’re too busy cramming and getting those last-minute papers in before the deadline. Try to get at least 20 minutes of physical activity each day. Your body will thank you. Yoga is a great way to get your blood flowing and activate muscles that have been stagnant all day while you sat at a desk typing away at your research paper. I was also a big fan of at-home workouts on YouTube when I was pressed for time.
I also saved A TON of money by taking a couple hours each Sunday to browse the flyers, plan my meals for the week, buy my groceries and prep some lunches to bring to campus with me during the week. I treated myself to lunch or dinner out once a week. I would typically spend $30-$50 per week on food (including coffee and eating out).
5. Be Humble
For our generation, a university degree is a HUGE commitment. Entitlement won’t get you anywhere, and neither will that fancy piece of paper on its own. What you build for yourself professionally over those four years are what employers are attracted to. Make the most of it and never expect anything just because you “deserve it.”