The holidays have slowly receded into memory, and another term of school is upon us. It was a welcome break, but perhaps not quite the same refuge from the hectic schedule at McMaster as it is for many other students. I had a great deal of free time, and wonderful festivities with my family, although there was a void that required resolve to overlook.
My mother passed away in February of last year, and this was the first Christmas that any of us experienced without her. That made it difficult, while at the same time, empowering, because overcoming that challenge with grace, fortitude, and the diligence to make Christmas memorable for everyone else was daunting.
An enjoyable holiday, but I am glad to be back to the academic life. I missed it.
With that being said, as I prepared to get back to writing for the Sil, I glanced over their website in search of ideas and to absorb the opinions shared through the social media platforms that are injected there. While browsing through, particularly the student feedback, I couldn’t help but notice an overwhelming response from many students with a recurring theme that disturbed me. Namely, that “university is overrated.”
In this issue, I intend to vehemently attack that distorted ideology. It reeks of self-entitlement, the salience of Western egocentrism, and a destructive naiveté that seems rampant in this age, a naiveté that is not only unbecoming of high caliber students such as us, but one that needs to be quashed where it stands.
Listen here; we are among the top 4-10% of the world in socioeconomic standing. We are privileged to lead the lives that we lead. We are those given the opportunity to make positive change in the world, to help the less fortunate, to create a better, brighter future for the generations to follow. Holding an attitude that you are “too cool for school,” that you aren’t learning anything, that the faculty of the Institution aren’t providing you with the tools and knowledge to create a better world, that is a reflection of your own inability to progress and grow, the onus of which belongs on nobody’s conscience but your own.
Sure, the curriculum can be outdated, distorted, repetitive, and confusing. The professors may be offensive, obtuse, unapproachable, or maladapted. The faculty itself could well be self-righteous, hierarchical, and disturbing. This depends entirely on how you choose to experience it. Nothing is perfect, nor will it ever be. However, it can be better. This is our duty, a duty we undertake armed with the knowledge, theories, and practical tools we are provided by, not just the immediate academics divulging to the very best of their ability, but to the brilliant minds that precede them, the minds that divulged unto them, and the minds before that.
We owe it to each other, and ourselves, to not paint this experience in a negative light, to not be intellectual hipsters partying in the caboose of the “too cool for school” train, to not be so short-sighted as to believe that the raw material provided here is less than the ultimate tool with which to shape our own destiny, and create the change we want to see in the world. Open your eyes, take a deep breath, and experience some gratitude for the decades of hard work, accomplishment, sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears that went into each piece of brick and mortar sheltering your body from the freezing cold whilst sheltering your mind from ignorance, dejection, and horror. Taking this experience for granted is what is really overrated. It doesn’t make you look cool, it doesn’t make you any better than anyone else, and it most certainly doesn’t make you any friends. At least, not the right ones.
I was on the number 51 on my way downtown.
I turned to my trusty Samsung Note II and opened the ‘Games’ folder for something fun to do to pass the time. Usually, I will catch up on my readings for school when I’m on my way to campus in the mornings because the bus is less busy and, subsequently, more peaceful. This bus was packed though, so I decided to do something more, shall we say, recreational, because my personal space was being invaded.
This way I wouldn’t have to stare aimlessly at signs, avoiding eye contact, and I would have a valid reason to avoid engaging in conversation.
Who am I kidding? The truth is, I’m addicted.
Candy Crush calls to me in my sleep. I frequently find myself with phantom itches, comparable to a jones-ing heroin addict, that only subside with the appearance of the lanky ringmaster lookalike that stands smiling on the splash page for the game. Evidence of the epidemic presented itself en route from McMaster when the 60-something man to my left peeked over my shoulder and chuckled. “Addictive, isn’t it?” On another bus ride, a young man sitting in front of me swiped his lock screen at the same time as I did and our devices played the same theme music almost in tandem. We looked at each other with a certain clandestine glee.
There has been an unquestionable, exponential surge in technological advances in the past decade. Personal data devices are an inevitable reality, particularly for those fortunate enough to have the economic and cultural capital to be attending a post-secondary institution as prestigious as ours. Laptops are overcoming handwritten notes, and with this comes the unfortunate distractions of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and their ilk. While your professors gallantly impart the most prolific lecture material possible, they have no choice but to accept the digitization of their students’ learning processes.
After these encounters, I have been more aware of the habits of my fellow public transportationists. I take time to evaluate the ratios of digital involvement and interpersonal involvement. I’m sure each of you can agree that the number of people with their heads buried in the digital sands continues to increase.
This illusion has bled into our institutions too. Even with a laptop in front of her with multiple browser windows open, a young lady beside me in lecture pulls out her phone to browse another site. Metaphorical jaw agape, I considered how I hadn’t seen her actually look at the prof once, meanwhile she had been robotically taking notes on her MacBook Pro the entire time, carrying on a conversation with her friend beside her, texting some guy, and was now browsing her phone’s internet.
I can identify the value of multi-tasking, but my argument is that something important gets lost in the dilution of attention.
Even with all of this being said, I am still a true lover and advocate of technology. I have the newest gadgets possible; I enjoy playing GTA V, Borderlands 2 with my oldest son, surfing social networks, and any other ethereal plane you can possibly imagine.
However, I have learned through a drawn out series of consequences, to gauge my tech-time by one value: Purpose.
I am not advocating puritanism. That would be a confining, boring and passionless existence. What I am advocating is a clarity of purpose - purpose with a clear direction and a valid destination in mind, a destination of mutual benefit. Tools themselves have no purpose except in their use.
This is why tools are developed, isn’t it?
Two years ago, shortly after moving into my current home, I was having drinks in my neighbor’s backyard getting to know everyone else in the neighborhood.
We were all exchanging jokes and stories - as everyone does while getting used to a new environment - learning about each other’s characters and our various idiosyncrasies. As I shared a story, I was approached by the gruff, grey-haired, older man who lives a few houses down. He removed his belt, wrapped the leather around his hand and presented the buckle to me. It was a silver relief of eagles surrounding a slot for a Zippo-style lighter.
“You like this?” He asked.
“Shit, yeah,” I replied.
“Here,” he wrapped the leather around the buckle and handed it to me.
“You can have it”.
My 68-year-old neighbour, Gerry, is a stalwart and stoic Scottish man renowned for his off the cuff remarks and his clear and concise evaluations of others. He’s rough around the edges, rides a Harley-Davidson, and takes regular vacations to remote campsites in his RV with his wife Gene. Gerry is an everyman, as far as the literary definition is concerned. Yet he is also incredibly unique and vibrant in his own right. His presence in our enclave-style backyard has always been strong and welcomed. His unique attitude and personality around which the neighbourhood would consistently rally for barbecues and parties. Two months ago, Gerry had a stroke.
The cycle of life. The inevitability of our birth and death. Our vulnerability to disaster or disease. These events, to the initiated, are synchronous with each other, once chosen to witness in tandem.
Witnessing the interdependence of my family on one another as we grasp to understand Gerry’s situation, is profoundly moving and articulates, on seemingly unseen levels, how much we all need each other. It’s truly undeniable once experienced, but usually not a topic of casual conversation.
Gerry has been fighting this thing tooth and nail, determined to have the full use of his left arm and leg as soon as humanly possible (the latter is returning at a painfully slow rate and he is currently confined to a wheel chair). He might harass a few nurses in the meanwhile, but I’m sure they won’t complain.
See, Gerry has a massive bankroll. A massive spiritual bankroll, that is. With an overwhelmingly positive balance - apparent in light of his recent misfortune - the response of his family, friends, and neighbors has been nothing short of beautiful. Not discounting his personal capacities, all of these people are his strength and resolve. His is an example of character over reputation, of the beauty of life’s abundance being available to those who seek its’ truths.
As Carl Jung said, “He who looks outside, dreams. He who looks inside, awakens”.
I suppose, with these words, I am mining for an ore of balance. An ore that, once refined to a precious metal, I believe can help to discern a unique and personal definition of abundance (I would use the term ‘wealth’, but that word is antiquated in my humble opinion).
You see, Gerry is not financially “well-to-do” but makes a good living and provides for his family. As far as I can see, they don’t really want for anything. Gerry and I have a lot in common. He is rich in ways I hope to be and impoverished in ways neither of us could give a shit about. In many ways, I am in the same boat as Gerry; my sons and stepdaughter don’t go without and occasionally receive a little something extra to remind them that they are loved and special. These are spiritually fulfilling examples of life’s potential abundance.
Philosophical rambling aside, I’m trying to say something simple. Open a spiritual account. Make deposits. Make good deposits for good reason. Make good deposits for good reason with a good attitude. Trust me, the interest rates will be through the roof.
Though the school year has just started, many undergraduates in the final year of their bachelor programs are starting to give serious consideration to what comes next. A popular option is graduate school. I feel that this option is highly appealing because of the widespread perception that “if some education is good, then more must be better.” After all, our generation has been inculcated with the belief that education (regardless of what field it is in) is the silver bullet for getting a good job. This is only partly accurate. While it is true that for many prestigious careers, a graduate degree is either a requirement or a strong asset, it is also true that many people think this way, and, as a result, there are enormous gluts of labour supply in these job markets - for instance, just ask someone looking for a tenure-track professorship. In addition, a graduate degree is perceived as a means of delaying one’s entry into the “real world” - with the added bonus that it gives the impression that one’s undergraduate degree is being put to good use, which, in today’s job market, is increasingly difficult to do.
As a seasoned grad school veteran (entering what is hopefully the final year of my mechanical engineering PhD here at McMaster - my MSc was in math, also obtained here at Mac), I humbly offer some advice for those considering grad school - though please bear in mind that my perspective is necessarily skewed by my science/engineering background.
The most important piece of advice is this: “Because I don’t know what else to do with my life” is not a good reason to attend grad school. If you are not completely sure grad school is for you, you may want to consider getting some real world experience; spend some time working, or get another set of more professionally oriented skills. Though if you do choose to take some time away from an academic environment, be cautioned that if the skills you applied in academia are not regularly practiced, then your proficiency can rapidly fade. After my BSc (in math), I spent two years working, volunteering and traveling - in retrospect, this was too much of a gap. As a result I spent much time simply catching up when I started my MSc.
In most cases, one is guaranteed money from teaching/research assistantships, which amount to a modest wage - though of course the amount of funding varies widely between programs and schools. Also when applying to grad schools, be sure to do your homework regarding potential sources of external funding.
The skills which determine success in undergrad are not necessarily the same skills which determine success in grad school. In your undergrad, you were spoon-fed material in lectures, which you rehearsed and regurgitated on tests. If you were good at this, you likely received much positive reinforcement, fueling your desire to continue doing something you’re good at. However in grad programs you often aren’t simply asked to answer questions - you have to figure out what the unanswered questions are, and whether you have the tools to answer them. This, I assure you, is much more difficult. You will need to work with considerably more independence, and from my experience, it took a long time to adjust to not having someone tell me exactly what to do. I have found that a useful strategy for independently working is to regularly write research reports - simply articulating things has a surprising ability to clarify what the questions are, and whether one is taking the appropriate steps to answer them.
Your grad school discipline does not necessarily have to be the exact same as your undergrad discipline. As mentioned, I’m currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, whereas my BSc and MSc were in math - the important thing is that you have (or can develop) the appropriate skills to do the job. Do your homework regarding your potential supervisors. I think the most important quality you can look for is whether your supervisors will actually have time for you - for me, regular meetings are absolutely essential for keeping the project on track. Also, research seldom goes according to plan, hence the expectations of supervisors and supervisees may not be made explicit, and as a result can be hugely mismatched - for example, supervisors might have a tacit expectation that the research results also be made into publications. Also, students might have unrealistically high expectations of what they will produce - the result of much grad student research is so arcane that few other people will care. So when discussing a project with potential supervisors, be clear about what the expectations are. Be sure to get advice from current grad students working under your prospective supervisor - they can often be counted upon for an objective opinion, since they likely do not have an incentive to misinform you.
Despite the best-laid plans, there is the chance that once you get to grad school, the experience is worse than expected. There will be a strong temptation to embrace an idle and fashionable ennui about grad school - largely due to the presence of other grad students who casually express cynical dissatisfaction with their career choice (or, should I say, lack of career choice) while at the same time sipping their lattes and doing absolutely nothing about it. As is true with many things in life, you gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. If you truly feel that your grad program will not yield a good return on investment, take some initiative and do something about it - change projects, change supervisors, change programs, or quit and seek opportunity elsewhere.
Phone rings. I answer.
“Guess what, Dad?” Seriph asks.
“What?” I answer.
“Guess!” He implores.
I bite; “You got a Billy Goat named Ben who has a Pet Monkey named Bibo. With wings and horns.” Seriph laughs and says “Nope.“
My regular access schedule is weekends, so I haven’t seen him since Sunday. It’s Friday and his mother is taking him to a ‘Crash-o-rama’ event in the States this weekend so I won’t get to see him for another week, which is nearly unprecedented. Our cute and awkward conversation goes on for another 5 minutes until he finally confesses that he and his mother got a “real leopard kitten” in Fergus.
“I miss you, little man,” I tell him.
Seriph is 9. He needs me. Two other children, Jack, my six-year-old son, and Lily, my six-year-old stepdaughter, need me too. As does my fiancée. They need me here at McMaster where I stepped off of the bus for my first visit into what seemed like a Monet painting - the lines transient, the construct fluid, and the subject vibrantly presented in soft focus, just out of reach.
In fact, the memories of the initial days of visitation blend into what seem like an hour or two, at least according to the film reel projecting them against the back of my eyes. Yet, there are many still-framed Polaroids that have subscribed themselves to eventually becoming stable reflections during my Golden Years (which aren’t that far away, dear Reader).
What a magnificent experience being an undergraduate at McMaster University. The prestige, the unending opportunities, the beauty of the campus, the kindness of my fellow students, and most of all, the generosity of the institution. This is the pristine and tightly wound braid of steel wires upon which we all walk as students here, forged and woven by our fine predecessors. Pushing the soapbox aside, damn it’s difficult to cross this chasm and keep your balance.
Family, work, friends, academia. These four disciplines constitute a science perhaps more complex and sensitive to change than any of those sciences we study here. It is to the methods of this particular science that I call attention. It is through the mastery of this science that we will all prevail.
Whether we are old or young, student or faculty, undergraduate, graduate or doctorate, this is a challenging time, with unique demands from each of our unknown futures. A time in our lives that can be tumultuous yet beneficial, monumental and experimental, and a fallacy or absolute truth.
What gets you jazzed? What keeps the beat? What feels real? What lights the match?
The answers to these questions tweak the lens and clarify the apparently blurry destination at the end of your tightrope.
You are taking the time to read this, which makes you vulnerable to the words on the page and their possible influence on you and your thought processes. That is why I feel it is important to be equally as vulnerable and allow you into my private world. It is necessary to toss anonymity, personal or professional, in the trash, and make life as raw and pure as possible. This demands a confessional of sorts, that the shadows that play beneath the surface do more than come up for air. They allow you to see their face. Into their eyes.
Live, learn, laugh, and love while you are here. Make connections. Stay connected. But most of all, remember there is no net.
Kacper Niburski / The Silhouette
I think I should start with a hello, though it may be wasted on you. Business, and the slack jaw rapidness of an auctioneer, is your mode of conversation, so I’ll instead hope that wherever you are, it’s sunny and you’re happy.
I can’t tell if you are, to be frank. I know that’s hard to believe me not knowing you or really me not knowing me, but you’re young, Kacper. You’re a freshman in university.
You see, I’m you but older though it’s very well possible my archaic lexicon gives that fact away. Words like archaic and lexicon are surefire indicators of how ancient you’ve become.
I’m sorry for becoming old, but there was nothing we could’ve done about it. Your knees crack when you bend and you feel tired even after you wake up and you drink coffee and you’ll figure out the rest as it goes on. Sometimes you won’t; I’m sorry for that too.
That’s why I am writing to you now, freshman Kacper, in order to help fill in the blanks that I, and you by extension, didn’t know way back when you began this whole damned thing. I want to ensure that in the future of this university odyssey that you are just now beginning, I won’t have to write an apology letter to the both of us.
I fear that this message won’t get to you in time, however. I’m afraid that when you receive it, you’ll be starting your fourth year at McMaster with a dirty mop of a haircut and a laziness that seems palpable; your parents will look at you as a they do to a trophy collecting dust, a forgotten memory of triumph reserved for better days; you’ll be a mess of yourself, of who you thought you should be, and who you never were – and the three categories will never be in agreement, and you won’t either, and you’ll wonder if anything ever is, if it ever was.
And then you’ll look back to your freshman self, and you’ll see a boy who seemed steeped in sunlight, who thought that if he only tried in whatever he attempted, he would eventually have success, and that boy, with an indefatigable dream of becoming anything but that boy, would be smiling.
From there, you’ll try to rearrange the haze of memories that you somehow once lived, and there will be millions of them plastered on your ceilings, walls and picture frames. You’ll collect them all if only to see how they changed the way you shake your hand or the way you talk, and at that point, you’ll write a letter to that same boy in an attempt to ensure that his smile lasted.
And here is what you’ll get:
Try in everything you do, Kacper. It’s a simple truth and for that reason, you’ll forget it most of all during the complexity of university. But remember that you don’t want to wake up one day and wonder where the hell the time went and where did you go with it.
Know that in the next four years, shit happens and loads of it will come flushing your way after those cherry-blossom twilight days you find yourself in end. But also know that this is not necessarily bad: terrible events will always occur, even after you’re gone. That’s not exactly comforting, but it’s enough. You are me, and I’m still here, and together we have always gotten through things no matter how bad they seemed at first. As you’ve been led to believe, and still believe to this day, there is sun even on the cloudy days. It’s just somewhere else.
When those cloud-drunk days dwindle down, and you’re feeling like an overflowing sewer gutter trying to drain away rain, get up. Shake the sleep from those legs. Act. Do. Feel. Wear socks. Funny socks. Colourful socks. Live, for Christ sake, and if you’re in those socks while the thirst of life is at your tongue, then you’re all the better for it.
Fall in love, Kacper. It is just about the best thing you can be in, though it won’t always be successful at it. There will be times when you can’t imagine why you allowed yourself to be so exposed, so vulnerable. It’ll all seem so stupid, so forced, so unimaginably regrettable. But those moments will pass, and the relationship will pass with them, and you’ll find yourself still holding her hand after it all and look how soft it is and look how happy the two of you are.
There will be the best nights of your life you’ll never be able to remember and other times that you’ll remember too much that wish you could forget. Both of them will enrich you in different ways because both, on days when you’ve forgotten all about the trivial problems that swarmed you once daily, will one day be called “the days.”
Write about it all. No matter how small or big. Even if you’re exhausted. Especially if you are. Talk, talk, talk until your mouth dries or your hand cramps or until you’re satisfied that you’ve printed your uniqueness on the white pages in front of you. Because the future is made of the words you compose and the words you don’t and you have so much to say. In the end – our end, Kacper – you’ll be left behind with the sentences you use and others will be left with you in those same sentences, and that means something.
What it means you’ll only find out when you grow to be my age. Until then, Kacper, I hope the world for you, I hope that you want more than just a rocky globe, and I hope that we can laugh about it all, whatever it is, after the fact.
Until we meet, warm regards,