Mustafa is an Honours Biology student in his 3C term. He is also one of the 2021 International Connection: Waterloo Ready Live Sessions hosts. Here is what he had to say about his experience at Waterloo.
Why did you choose the University of Waterloo?
I chose it for it's quality of education, localization in a booming tech city, the enormous campus, great facilities, and it's proximity to the GTA.
When you received your offer of admission, how did you celebrate your success?
I was ecstatic because it meant that I could spend my next years abroad doing whatever I could think of. After getting the offer of admission, I started planning a road trip from the Montreal airport down to Village 1 residence.
Before you arrived, what worried you about coming?
I was afraid of moving to such a foreign place where I knew nobody and I was equally terrified by the fact that I'd have to take care of my physical and mental health. I was also worried about whether or not I had chosen the correct career path. I kept my worries away by spending time with family and getting advice from those who had already made the journey through undergrad. When I got to Waterloo, I used Orientation week to clear my mind and focus on acclimating to the new environment.
What did you expect Canada and the University of Waterloo to be like?
I expected a lot more mountains or hills, and some variant terrain, but Southern Ontario is surprisingly flat. I also thought that snow was incredibly beautiful fluff, but after seven months of walking to classes through the snow and slush, it's lost quite a bit of its initial charm. But, I’ll always love a good snowball fight!
Was there anything that surprised you? How so?
The wildlife in Waterloo is so diverse. I’ve spotted so many animals I've never seen before anywhere else: deer, groundhogs, Blue Jays, squirrels, skunks, geese, beavers, etc.
Also, when compared to Lebanon and some other countries, Canadians are generally much more open and social with strangers. This is one aspect of Canada that I was pleasantly surprised by.
Were there any highlights to your first term at Waterloo?
Making acetaminophen (Tylenol) in a chemistry lab, performing karaoke in front of a crowd in Montreal, learning archery with the UW Archery Club, collecting field samples from Laurel Creek for microscopy in a Zoology Lab, road trips to Toronto and some southern Ontario cities, and finding out that Waterloo Park has a bunch of dope Alpacas (it's one of my favourite places to go and clear my mind!). Overall, the best part about my first year was definitely playing my first gig as a DJ and finding an activity that I was incredibly passionate about.
Did you face any challenges in your first year? If so, how did you overcome them?
Definitely. Taking a final at university is way harder than in high school, but getting through all-nighters is part of the fun. Changing up how you study to succeed in different courses is really important, but I found that it can be tough to find what works best for me. So far, I've found that switching my notetaking practices and integrating learning concepts into my everyday life (rarther than memorizing huge amounts of information) works. For example, thinking about how my cells' mitochondria work whenever I bite into a sandwich.
What main differences have you noticed between your home culture and Canadian culture?
In Lebanon, it's common courtesy to invite people over for big dinners and for the guests to be 20 minutes late. In Canada, I scarcely found myself at any dinner parties of that sort and, if I did, it was rude to be late to them. Canadians also really love their hockey, as opposed to soccer back in the Middle East. One of the most important differences is how accepting Canadian culture is; you could look however you want and be whatever you wish and still be respected the same as anyone else.
What were your experiences like when you returned home?
When I returned to Qatar, I noticed instantly that people there are much less social and small talk just does not exist. Having long hair definitely raised a lot of eyebrows there as it is very uncommon to see men with lengthy hair. Also, the pizza in Canada is actually legendary when compared to what is made in Qatar (shoutout to Bianca’s Pizza!).
Being back home with family was nice after living alone for an entire year, but the privacy of being alone is something important to have as you grow into your own person. I found that it can be difficult to grow in an environment where you have less responsibilities.
If you were arriving as a new international student again, what would you do differently, or the same?
I would have skipped less classes, spent a lot of time talking to people, joined many more types of clubs at the university, and hit the gym a lot more regularly.
What is one piece of advice you would share with new Waterloo students?
For most, attending a university happens during a time in your life when you are transitioning into adulthood and starting your solo journey. This is going to come with a lot of anxiety and problems, but remember that no one is ever going to fix those problems other than yourself. Every choice is yours to make.
What has your experience of studying online been like during COVID-19?
It's been a great experience for 90% of the courses that I’ve taken online so far. But, I had some problems transitioning to the online learning environment during the spring 2020 term. Amidst the chaos of the pandemic, I felt some courses that transitioned to remote learning methods had unfair examinations, which accentuated the stress of being locked down abroad and I failed my first exam. This was incredibly disheartening, but I knew it was bound to happen at some point. But, what I didn't expect is that shortly afterwards I experienced recurring anxiety attacks. I would get an attack every time I tried studying for any of my courses, which meant I was falling behind.
At the time, I believed that the attacks were allergy symptoms, so I obtained a VIF (verification of illness form) to postpone the weight of all my exams and assignments to future finals. This gave me time to make doctor's appointments and stay with a friend so that I could de-stress and make sure someone could EpiPen me if I had an allergery attack. In the end, prioitizing my mental and physical health got me through that difficult time. At the end of the spring term, I had made it through. I achieved an 85% term average and my GPA was unharmed.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
You can have some amazing times at university, but it's about balancing the fun with your school work so you do not have to give up either.