Math alumni celebrate and inspire the class of 2020

As new graduates prepare to navigate a recession, math alumni shared stories and strategies as part of a day-long virtual event

This isn’t how the Faculty of Math’s class of 2020 envisioned their graduating year. Instead of walking across the convocation stage to receive their diploma in front of family and friends, students will participate in a virtual ceremony. Then, in the months ahead, these same graduates will seek work in one of the toughest job markets in recent memory.

But there is cause for hope and optimism.

Without diminishing the challenges facing today’s students, the Faculty of Math’s incoming Dean Mark Giesbrecht sees Waterloo graduates playing a key role in articulating what the post-pandemic world will look like.

“These are challenging times, but they are also times that are going to define the future,” Giesbrecht says. “The world is changing and our students’ education in technology and rigorous thinking is going to serve them well. They have the opportunity to think deeply, not just how we can get through the pandemic, but about how we can use the pandemic as an impetus to improve the way we work and live.”    

Giesbrecht celebrated this year’s graduates and fielded questions at the Alumni Day & Virtual Celebration of the Math Class of 2020 event on Friday, June 5. He was joined by other University faculty members and prominent Math alumni, including Sam Pasupalak (BCS ’12), co-founder of Maluuba, Dave McKay (BMath ’87, DMath ’18), CEO of RBC, Rudy Karson (BMath ’79), managing partner at Karlani Capital, and Larry Smith, director of Waterloo’s Problem Lab. They participated in panel discussions on a variety of topics, including “how to achieve success in the face of a recession” and “thriving in your career.”

Alumni tell stories of hardship, offer tips for navigating a recession

Michelle Hung (BMath ’08), author and founder of The Sassy Investor, hopes that, through her participation in the virtual event, she will help graduates remain resilient and hopeful in the face of adversity.

Like this year’s graduating class, Michelle entered the job market in the midst of the financial crisis of 2007. She still vividly recalls how discouraged and anxious she felt as she struggled to find work. 

“I remember being super ambitious and excited to get my career started — but then things weren’t happening the way I planned,” Hung says. “Nobody was hiring. I was frustrated and felt like I was falling behind my peers. I thought I would never get a job in investment banking ever again, even though I completed two co-op terms in that industry.”

She wants to remind today’s students that the crisis is temporary and not to beat themselves up if things don’t go their way initially. Hung stayed patient in her job search and after a year of looking she found a good position on Bay Street. It was the start of a highly successful career, first as an investment banker and then as an author and entrepreneur.

Hung also advises students that the recession could also be a good time to diversify your skillset.

“Things change and to be adaptable is one of the best traits to possess,” Hung says. “Use the time to gain other skills, get creative and most importantly, enjoy your youth.”

Hung told her story and shared tips for navigating the recession as part of the “My Crossroad Moment” panel during the event.

Ian McPhee, co-founder of WATCOM, Waterloo’s first spin-off software company, also confronted a recession upon his graduation in 1973.

“Few companies were hiring and I had no contacts,” Ian recalls. “My wife had just given birth. I only got one job interview at Systemhouse and drove to Ottawa during a blizzard for it.”

The interview went badly. McPhee recalls being a nervous wreck throughout it and did not get hired. But this may have been a blessing in disguise, as it led to the opportunity that would change his life. He took a low-paying, but opportunity-rich, job working with Wes Graham’s legendary Computer Systems Group (CSG), where he worked as a student. Paul Dirksen taught him how to enhance WATFIV and later Ian helped develop compilers for several languages on mainframe and minicomputers systems under contract to IBM and Digital Equipment.  When it became evident that microcomputers were going to become powerful enough for real computing, he co-founded WATCOM with Wes Graham.

McPhee believes that many of today’s graduates could follow his lead and become entrepreneurs.

“The opportunities and help for startups in Waterloo have never been better, with Velocity, the Accelerator Centre, Communitech, etc. I’m expecting some of today’s grads will become leaders of some very exciting enterprises in time that begin now as humble startups,” McPhee says. “Every disaster presents opportunities and those who find and act on them can be very successful.”

Looking ahead

While the event celebrated the 2020 graduating class, it also sought to raise support for our current students, many of whom are struggling to find work. Organizers asked that Waterloo alumni make introductions between organizations and Waterloo’s Co-operative Education and Experiential Education (CEE) office.

Currently, there is unprecedented funding available to employers of students. Up to 75 per cent of a student wage may be subsidized.  The CEE office is hoping to add 2000 jobs in the next three weeks to ensure that all students seeking to complete co-op term this Spring have work-terms.