Journey to the centre of the Earth Sciences program at Waterloo

Monday, December 24, 2012

I wrote my final exam yesterday and a day later I’m still experiencing the euphoria that the exams for term one are over. It is now December 23, 2011 and not only did I make it through my first four months at the University of Waterloo, I made it through successfully. Make no mistake about it; this success did not come easily. It took a great deal of hard work that included studying late into many nights - despite the fact that I felt I was more prepared than most on what to expect during the first term. Having said this, the last four months, although gruelling at times, have also been among some of the most rewarding and best times of my life. 

Tyler, on his first day at the University of Waterloo

Tyler, on his first day at the University of Waterloo

It was just over a year ago when I received the coveted early acceptance letter that offered me the program that I wanted to study at my first choice university and I was elated. The main reason for wanting to attend the University of Waterloo was a combination of the excellent reputation the Earth Science department held and the University of Waterloo’s strong co-op program. The ability to earn my degree while gaining related work experience and earn money to pay for part of my education seemed like an invaluable asset that could not be overlooked. My primary motivation to pursue Earth Sciences as a field of study and to specialize in Geology, which can also lead to being APGO (Association of Professional Geoscientists of Ontario) certified, was simply because I enjoy the outdoors, particularly remote locations, and in general, the Earth Sciences field fulfills this requirement. In particular, entry level positions often involve trips into the field for days, weeks or months at a time with a team of geologists to map the lithosphere and gather samples to be later analyzed by senior staff members. This career appeared to fit in perfectly with my interests because I love backpacking, climbing, canoeing, swimming, and skiing. Since I was young, my parents always took my brother and I on adventurous vacations such hiking in Banff, horseback riding over mountain passes in Jasper, backcountry canoeing in Killarney, snorkelling in Belize, or just getting us out of bed in the middle of the night in Costa Rica to watch Arenal Volcano erupt. If I had any doubt that a career requiring extended stays in remote locations might not be for me – my three week backpacking trip this past summer in the Canadian Rockies confirmed that I was definitely on the right track. I also learned, while attending a science information session at the University of Waterloo’s Annual Fall Open House, that although Canada’s mineral industry is one of the largest in the world, certified geoscientists are in high demand because relatively few young people choose to pursue an education in Earth Science due in large part to the fact that they are rarely exposed to this subject in high school. As a result, qualified geologists are in high demand and as economics would have it, their salary reflects this demand. I attended many university open houses with my parents while in grades 11 and 12 and each time we left Waterloo it was the Earth Sciences students as well as the professors that got me excited about this program. It was their genuine enthusiasm and their willingness to talk in depth about their passion, experiences and travels that also intrigued me during the early stages of my career search. For all these reasons I knew that the Earth Sciences co-op program at the University of Waterloo was right for me and my future.

Tyler on his three week backpacking trip into the Canadian Rockies

Tyler on his three week backpacking trip into the Canadian Rockies.

After the anticipation of waiting to be accepted was over, I returned my focus to doing well in my final Grade 12 year and did not give much thought to university until after graduation. By the summer I began wondering, and admittedly worrying a little, about what university life would be like so to ease my mind I decided to attend Student Life 101. This two-day session during the summer at the University of Waterloo helped me find my way around campus, allowed me to stay overnight in Ron Eydt Village which I knew would soon be my home for eight months, and gave me a feel (or should I say a warning) for what the workload would be like during the first year. This heavy workload caution, coupled with repeated warnings that the first few weeks were critical to my first term success, began to increase my stress level – and this was not what I hoped to get out of Student Life 101. By the time my parents picked me up after the two-day session I came to realize that I was more anxious than ever as I began to seriously doubt that I could keep up with the pace and volume of work. As I got into their car the first question I had for my parents was, “what happens if I can’t do this?”   Fortunately, I have supportive parents and they explained to me that the warning was most likely geared to students who often find themselves consumed in their new found freedom and by the time they realize they are behind in their studies it is often difficult to fully recover. They felt it was a simple matter of working hard, staying focused and managing priorities while also knowing when to make room for some down time, and since I was able to do it in high school they felt confident I would continue this pattern at the University of Waterloo. After 18 years I’ve learned that they are often right so I continued on with the task of enjoying the summer.
Labour Day weekend arrived all too quickly and before I knew it I was moving into residence with hundreds of other first year students. After unpacking and saying good-bye my parents left for their long, one hour drive home. That good-bye marked the beginning of Orientation Week as I began to meet and get to know fellow students on my floor, in my program, as well as my roommate, who turned out to be a great guy. He brought an Xbox and a TV which was a pleasant surprise – we clearly already had something in common. I was also surprised that the dons actually read the preference forms because they did an awesome job of matching up students on our floor with similar habits and interests. During Orientation Week I discovered that my floor was quickly nicknamed the “party floor” of my residence which definitely led to a lot of interesting events over the course of the next few months. I also met the other 14 first year Earth Sciences students, most who are also in the co-op program, and I was again surprised by how much we have in common.  Within the first month some of us were already planning a hiking/camping trip for when second term ends in April. This low number of 15 direct entry students into Earth Sciences represents how few students take this career path after high school but it should be noted that this number has almost doubled since last year even though the minimum acceptance average has gone up to 80% within the Faculty of Science. Another positive note is that 100% of the Earth Sciences co-op students were successful in securing geoscience jobs last year despite the economic downturn. The future is clearly optimistic for current Earth Sciences students. 
Tyler and his brother canoeing in Killarney Provincial Park

Tyler and his brother canoeing in Killarney Provincial Park

Throughout the fall term I had some of the best times of my life (Laurier parties!) and some of the worst times in which I had to stay up until three or four in the morning to finish an assignment. But don’t get me wrong, I am not a procrastinator; it’s just that at times the volume of work forces you to sacrifice precious sleep time. However, I would definitely recommend trying to avoid this situation as much as possible because you just can’t function as effectively the next day on such little sleep. Fortunately, there’s lots of help available including in-residence tutoring and scheduled tutorial sessions which many students fail to take advantage of. These sessions are academically beneficial and can save you hours of frustration so be sure to use these resources. Furthermore, when I applied for residence I accepted the option to be a part of the Living Learning Community and as a result the majority of students on my floor are also Physical Sciences students. This turned out to be advantageous because whenever I was stuck on a problem there was always someone nearby who could help me out. During Orientation Week a fellow Earth Sciences student and I discovered the bouldering wall in the Physical Activity Complex and this is basically a rock wall that is not very high so ropes are not required. I figured if I am going to studying rocks I might as well learn to climb them too. This turned out to be great stress-reliever for me in the months to come. 
I immediately knew I had chosen the right program about a month into first term when I found that my first year Earth Science class and lab (Earth 121 and 121L) were, hands down, the most interesting classes. In particular, learning about the way in which evidence of past events, that occurred millions of years ago, are recorded in rock formations, thoroughly intrigued me. I was able to enjoy doing homework and studying rather than simply wanting to get it done. Hydrology was also an interesting class as the University of Waterloo is well known for its groundwater studies and research. The lab component involved getting actual hands-on experience with groundwater sampling and stream flow gauging which are techniques professional hydrologists often use in the field. Despite the horror stories I heard about first year calculus, it was not my hardest course (even though I was never a big fan of math) and was relatively easy to manage as long as I did all of the assignments and occasionally the extra practice problems. Physics 121, on the other hand, was definitely the hardest course and most other first year Earth Science students agreed. After barely passing the midterm I felt, for the first time ever, like giving up.  However, this helped me come to the realization that doing the weekly online assignments was not nearly enough to be prepared for this course so in addition I began working on the challenging textbook problems and practice exams that were posted online. As a result of this, and some late nights of studying, I did well on the final exams. There was a strange rumour circulating around campus that midterms are fairly easy and final exams are designed to make you fail. This I found to be completely false and added a lot of unnecessary stress to my life while I studied for the final exams. As long as you are prepared and study well before exams you will generally do better on the final exams in comparison to midterms.
After completing my last exam I was quite ecstatic and celebrated with a few friends on my floor who had not gone home yet for the holidays. After packing and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas my parents picked me up and we drove straight to Mont Tremblant for four days of skiing and some much needed rest and relaxation. During the drive I looked back on the doubts I had during the summer and how rewarding it feels today to have made it through. It was hard work but with the support system that the University of Waterloo has in place – it is possible to succeed as long as you seek out this help if you need it. Throughout this journey, that has only begun, I’ve had a lot of good times, a lot of laughs, and met many people of which I know some will be lifelong friends. Above all else though, I am now more certain than ever before that the Honours Earth Sciences Co-op Program at Waterloo is right for me.
                                                                                  Tyler J. Ciufo