My advice for first year students

Guest post by Chadi Saad-Roy

I struggled with the topic of this post, as there are invariably countless subjects to write about, addressing prospective and incoming undergraduate students. After much reflection, I decided to give broad advice about one’s approach to education during an undergraduate degree.

This topic is often forgone in favour of more pressing guidance. However, reflecting on the experience of an undergraduate degree as a whole is useful, and should be constantly done at the beginning, in the middle, at the end, and afterwards. Doing so should also be gratifying! In this blog post, I aim to give some direction to prospective and incoming undergraduate students, using examples drawn from my own experiences. I hope I can provide some valuable insight to you!

What is an undergraduate degree?

Throughout many discussions with friends and acquaintances about the nature of schoolwork and how to succeed academically during an undergraduate degree, I realized that for some, an undergraduate degree is…

  • a natural progression from high school
  • a necessity in today’s world
  • a path to the workforce
  • a stepping stone to their dream professional school
  • and the list goes on…

I must admit that when I entered university, I did not grasp what entailed an undergraduate degree, apart from the obvious credit requirements. Immediately after high school, I entered the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Science with an undeclared major, thinking about professional schools and future careers. Now, I just graduated with a Combined Honours in Mathematics and Statistics, and a Minor in Biology.

The main advice I would like to give to prospective and incoming students is that there are so many more dimensions to your academic life as an undergrad, and it really is worth the effort to engage, show interest, and get involved.  This makes all the difference!

My academic path

After finding MATH 100 challenging and interesting, I decided to take MATH 122 in addition to MATH 101 in the spring, and found that I wanted to pursue some form of mathematics, but did not know what this entailed in terms of a future career.

Photo by Brian Van Wyk

I then had the opportunity to do research with an NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) undergraduate student research award under Professor Emeritus Pauline van den Driessche in the Mathematics and Statistics Department, and I was hooked.

That summer, combining my interests in mathematics and biology, I worked on mathematical models of disease transmission in cattle.

This led to another NSERC-USRA the subsequent summer, where I worked on mathematical models of African sleeping sickness and syphilis. After that, I held one last NSERC-USRA, where I worked on anthrax and Zika virus models.

This summer, I am a research assistant under Dr. van den Driessche, before I move to Princeton University to start a PhD in quantitative and computational biology in September. Never had I imagined that at 22, I would be about to embark on such a journey.

Chad at the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards

My advice for first year students

My point here is threefold:

  1. As a naïve first year student, I did not know what to pursue, but taking a variety of classes allowed me to find subjects I was passionate about: it pays to take many classes and to not be afraid! 
  2. Having wanted to stop mathematics after high school (because I did not comprehend its uses), I was intrigued and open to learn more: an open mind may lead you to success in a form that you had never even dreamed of
  3. I was extremely lucky to have been able to pursue research work under Dr. van den Driessche, as this was transformative: actively inquiring about the possibilities of pursuing research in your chosen field may transform your academic path (and your life)

 It is hard being a newly admitted undergraduate student, knowing that you will now commence a long expedition with an end result that is potentially still blurry. However, I would like to emphasize that the outcomes one expects are often vastly different than one envisions, and it often happens for the better. The possibilities one can imagine are so much fewer!

The best years of my life

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the University of Victoria: if you are an incoming student, I hope you will as well. The last five years have been some of the best years of my life. I hope that my advice has been helpful!

Feel free to contact me at chadisr ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com if you have any questions about this blog post or my experience at the University of Victoria, pursuing a Combined Honours in Mathematics and Statistics, and a Minor in Biology.

For those incoming students reading this, I wish you all the best with your studies: take advantage of as many opportunities as you can and have fun!


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