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Bond student exchange: What it's like attending one of the world's best STEM Universities

June 28, 2018

By Emily Selleck, Bond University journalism student on exchange at University of Waterloo

Whenever I tell someone I am studying at Canada’s University of Waterloo, it’s swiftly followed by a question I have been asked countless times: ‘Are you in math or engineering?’

The university, located one hour outside of Toronto, is a hub for the future leaders of Silicon Valley.

Boasting some of Canada’s best STEM faculties, the school is known for having both the world’s largest Faculty of Mathematics and the largest cooperative (co-op) program.

Nevertheless, I am not a science, tech, engineering or math major; instead I am taking classes within the arts faculty as part of a study abroad program at Bond University.

Waterloo has produced graduates like Mike Lazaridis, the man who launched the first ever smartphone in 2002 (the BlackBerry 5180) and has an Academy Award to his name for technical work developing digital time-code slates.

Meanwhile, the late Stephen Hawking declared “great things will happen here” when he visited Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Suffice to say: The University of Waterloo is an inspiring place of learning, if at times a little (or, a lot) intimidating given the student acceptance rate is so low and places are incredibly coveted.

I was initially attracted to Waterloo because of the school’s main marketing point: its co-op program.

Essentially, every second semester Waterloo students apply for jobs (some apply for up to 50 different companies) either locally, in Canada or in other parts of the world and by graduation, they will have spent equal time working in their field, and studying.

A saying I overheard repeatedly on campus was ‘Cali or bust’.

I quickly learned this referred to the pressure on software engineering and computer science students to land co-op positions in Silicon Valley.

And often they do – at companies like Apple and Google, no less.

However, the phrase ‘Cali or bust’ actually reflects a wider Canadian issue of ‘brain drain’ in the tech sector and loss of software engineers to the US; a recent study showed 66 per cent of them took jobs in California after graduating.

Nevertheless, there is an inherent culture of excellence at the university which I find inspires me to do even better in my classes (creative writing, digital video, arts management) and push myself further than I usually would.

Generally speaking, there are less contact hours at Waterloo than there are at Bond however homework and expectations for work outside of the classroom are higher.

The campus is huge; I have been here for seven weeks now and still get lost exploring the school’s underground tunnels which connect the buildings.  

However, this means there are an endless amount of study spaces, café and restaurant offerings (along with multiple on-campus Starbucks and Tim Hortons stores) and plenty of greenery when you want to relax outdoors.

There’s even an earth sciences museum on campus – I wasn’t joking when I said this place was huge.

I live in a suite-style on-campus residence so I have access to high-speed internet, gym facilities and the ‘marketplace’ which is like a cafeteria but on steroids.

The offerings are all fresh: you watch your food being cooked in front of you and there are plenty of healthy options.

Getting around the town is also easy because pubic transport is free using your student card.

The University of Waterloo borders Wilfrid Laurier University so there are tens of thousands of students in the town at any one time, and the bars, clubs and cafes on Waterloo’s main street reflect the student culture of the area.

When you’re not in class however, Waterloo is a fantastic launchpad for exploring North America.

I recently spent 10 days on the country’s West Coast travelling from Vancouver to Whistler and The Rockies.

Some of the highlights included zip lining nearly 2km at 200m above the valley in Whistler, exploring the massive lakes in Jasper, visiting glaciers on the Columbia Icefield and spotting bears, moose and elk in the national parks.

I also took a trip to New York just last week booking a last minute flight to attend the Tony Awards (the Oscars of Broadway) and catch up with friends over a long weekend, making it back in time for class on Tuesday.

Closer to campus, Justin Bieber regularly hangs out in the Waterloo area, sometimes even at the local mall.

The pop sensation grew up in a nearby town, so if you’re a JB fan, keep your eyes peeled.

Toronto is only a couple of hours away as well by public transport, and I frequently go into the city for weekend trips to watch baseball games or see a show.

Finally, one of the best things about studying at the University of Waterloo is the incredible people you will meet.

Students here aren’t just book smart, they have plenty of real-world experience thanks to the co-op program and there’s a good chance some of these kids will one day be running the world’s biggest companies.

On a recent flight from New York to Toronto, I sat next to an internationally renowned businessman who told me some of the smartest people he had met attended the University of Waterloo. The school truly has a fantastic reputation and if you ever get a chance to go on exchange through Bond University, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Top 3 tips for studying at Waterloo

  • Clubs are the best way to meet people and there are more than 200 to choose from. Whether you’re into model United Nations or cheese appreciation (yes, you read that right) there’s a club for you.
  • Travel early in the term before your major assessments are due and exams start.
  • Watch out for geese. The university has a resource called ‘How to avoid a goose attack because it’s not all fun and feathers’ and honestly, I wish I was kidding. There are literally hundreds of geese on campus and they can be dangerous. Stay safe!