Mahtash sitting on stairs outside
Being true to yourself can mean courage, taking risks – and reaping rewards. Just ask Mahtash, now in her fourth year studying in Honours Arts and Business. She’s the first to admit when she arrived at Waterloo she had a strong vision for her future.

But it was tunnel vision.

From the time she was in grade 9, and with some not-so-subtle nudging from her parents, Mahtash had only one goal: to get into law school after earning her undergraduate degree and become a lawyer. Yet when she started taking legal studies classes in university, she realized the law just wasn’t her passion. In fact, she was bored.

“It was like, ‘What do I do now?’” Mahtash says, explaining that her other prospective major, political science, didn’t appeal to her either.

Fortunately, as an Honours Arts and Business student in the co-op stream, she could choose from one of 30 majors, taking her time to explore options, before officially declaring her final choice. Testing the waters is common in university. Between 30 and 50 per cent of students change majors as they explore interests and personal passions by taking an array of classes. Some courses and programs just click.

For Mahtash, that class was economics. Not only did she have a knack for analyzing data and using it to, say, potentially change public policy, she truly enjoyed it. There was math. A lot of math. But she was also required to write essays.

“Usually you don’t think about STEM when you think about arts programs, but I found Economics gave me the opportunity to touch on STEM, specifically math and computer science,” she says. “I enjoyed that I could pull from so many areas. It was just really fun for me.”

Yet switching paths meant leaving friends behind and entering a new student community, something that felt a little intimidating at first. Her first year economics class was also large – hundreds of students – so creating that all-important friend group was a challenge in the beginning. But by second and third year, courses were much smaller and she got to know her classmates by name.

“Now I have a huge group of about 20 people who are in the same program and I know I can message them anytime,” she says. “They’re amazing people who are always happy to help. It’s so nice.”

Mahtash met one more amazing person: her econometrics professor, Emmanuelle Piérard, who also researches health economics and how economics can be applied to real life situations. For instance, how do wait times have an impact on patient health? After only one course with her, Mahtash says she was so inspired, she decided to follow Pierard’s footsteps, get her Masters and PhD, and become an economics professor too.

“Every time I was in her class she would answer all of my questions and I would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing!’” says Mahtash. “She made me re-think where I wanted to go in the future.”

Studying with her friends and classmates has just made it even more apparent that academia is Mahtash’s right fit. She says she genuinely enjoys teaching other students so they understand the course material. Teaching gives her a social outlet and purpose, she says. That experience and mindset will only help her when she becomes a professor.

Mahtash walking outside

Eventually Mahtash broke the news to her parents that law school was likely no longer part of her future. Although they still bring the topic up from time to time, Mahtash says they’re coming around, especially since she is so obviously happy with where her education is taking her.

Changing her life’s plans and goals has been a journey of self-discovery, one that has given her a sense of what’s possible when there’s a willingness to be open-minded and brave. And while she admits there were some dark moments when she felt lost while starting over, finding her true path to academic success has been worth it. Mahtash says she feels like a changed person – much more comfortable taking risks and exploring new possibilities.

“I used to look at everything as if it had an end goal. Go to university, law school, done. I didn’t think about what else was available to me,” she says. “Switching over to economics gave me a better outlook on what I can do. There’s no closed door. You can do anything you want.”

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