or maybe, someone else knew the plan all along

Areena Akhter
9 min readNov 30, 2022

waterloo, fall 2022

I am really not a religious person. When we were trying to pick a school to send my little sister to, the only one that offered junior kindergarten happened to be a Catholic school. And so it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I learned my first prayer, as my family listened in disbelief to my sister spontaneously deciding to recite the “father, son, and holy spirit” prayer over a plate of biryani at dinner. That’s how un-religious I am, to my core.

Although I’m ‘culturally’ Muslim and celebrate Eid every year, I grew up without any real concept of Allah, God, or really any North Star at all. For a long time, religion felt unnecessary to me, performative even. Why subscribe to a practice that enforces laws so restrictive that you end up skirting around them anyways? (Especially in college.) I don’t think I truly understood the magnitude of having a belief system to hold onto until I ended up drowning in a world without one.

When I came home to visit my family in Ottawa this fall, I asked my dad to explain his transition from being a devout Muslim before his masters in Australia, to slowly loosening his beliefs in the traditions that had once led him to pray five times a day. My most recent semester of university had been hard, more overwhelming than I predicted. Somehow I had blindly thought that healing was a linear path; that chasing every experience I could on the other side of the continent would help me outrun the loss I’d left behind. Imagine my discomfort when I returned to Waterloo and so did the unhealed version of myself, threatening to ruin all the progress I’d made so far this year. This formed the basis for my semester’s pursuit of inner peace: how could I find faith at my lowest points when I felt that there was nothing for me to truly believe in?

My 3B term of studying CS at Waterloo forced me to face a version of myself I had never taken the time to examine before. She was quite shattered: although my inner child is an incredible student and an expressive, kind and energetic leader, she had never learned how to self-soothe. She had never developed the skills required to find her own peace amidst the chaos around her. On my second day back on campus, I signed myself back up for therapy, which would honestly be a gruelling process of realizing that I was holding onto a lot more baggage from my past than I had realized. From the gym to my social life to my studies, I spent this semester working to build my own belief system. By setting and maintaining standards for the life I deserve to have, I gradually moved towards finding my own inner peace.

3B ; city girl era, me vs. my inner child era, and maryam’s crutches vs. orlando era

I rediscovered the beauty of solitude this semester, or maybe just picked back up my journey of doing so. I remember being sixteen and declaring that I would never be a “relationship girl,” and then somehow I blinked and I was 21 and had spent the last three years in and out of relationships that ultimately left me feeling lost — loved, sure, but mostly lost. In place of someone else, I learned to choose myself. The choice to be honestly and truly alone in my early twenties is probably the greatest gift I’ll ever have.

This was the first semester that I really kept up with the gym, lifting frequently enough that I met a guy at a party who identified me as “the girl who’s always lifting at PAC.” I lit candles. I bought a gua sha. Self care has been another practice I’ve historically found performative and a bit vain, a belief I now know to be rooted in my upbringing. When your immigrant parents have spent decades of their lives in survival mode, building themselves from scratch in one country and then another, who has time for a face mask? And yet, having achieved everything I could have externally wanted in my professional life, I spent the early part of this semester deeply unfulfilled. It was as if somewhere in the pursuit of success, I had forgotten to learn how to take care of my heart. And so I decided to validate my self care and wellbeing practices. They have allowed me to find moments of peace in rituals like putting my makeup together before a night out and listening to a podcast while I methodically place various oils on my face. In many ways, sticking to them forms the basis of all the promises I keep to myself.

a long awaited blurry picture of me @ hustl before they changed their iconic wall art

As a newly-transferred CS student with a slightly lighter course load, I finally got to focus on building really fucking cool technology. From many days spent grinding out code on campus and countless hours debugging Scala, a functional language I had never touched before this semester, I learned all the things I’d come to Waterloo to discover. I took 4 classes that I cared about, for the first time ever. Intro to AI, Big Data for Distributed Systems, and Search Engines are the dream; the very algorithmic courses that I wrote my AIF about all those years ago. I coded a personalized page rank algorithm using Map Reduce, a problem that I’d literally discussed solving in my first round of interviews with Apple’s Photos Personalization team, which I’ll be joining in January. All of these terms that had confused me while I worked at Uber: indexing engines, Hadoop, clustering algorithms, and even just fundamentally understanding the differences between AI and ML, have slowly become clear to me. I debated the ethics of AI with a guest professor from the philosophy department and I worked on assignments that required me to architect systems at scale, just like I do at work. Like my own personal form of meditation, I’ve learned to lose myself in the flow state of writing code.

The privilege of having the mental clarity to be 100% present at school and an active member of my learning is not lost on me. I wrote with such a heavy heart earlier this year about the struggles of choosing to switch from SE into CS. So, I take my intellectual satisfaction today as just one more sign that the universe really does have a plan for me. When you make a decision you know deep down is right, only good things can happen for you. I love the concept that your brain, once expanded, can never really regain its original shape. As this semester draws to a close, I can’t begin to describe how much my brain has expanded to help me become a computer scientist who loves to create. I have always felt that designing algorithms could be quite beautiful, and I’m grateful that my 3B semester became a practicum for learning how to do so.

a couple of dreams coming true at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Orlando, my first ever work trip paid for by someone else

Spending this fall back in a city where I’d quietly grown, and then just as quickly lost, dozens of routines with another human being was deeply motivating. To replace the connections I used to have here in Waterloo, I built new and beautiful friendships. With my roommates, who inspire me with the ways that they navigate the world lightly in spite of everything they’ve faced, and with my “girlfriends in engineering,” with whom I commiserated about grueling assignments and spent many nights chatting about the possibilities of love, life, and our careers in between. I spent obligatory nights at all four of the clubs in Waterloo, celebrated my 21st birthday surrounded by friends from many phases of my life, and introduced my favourite show Love Life to some new friends I think I’ll probably love forever. Somewhere in between jumping off the top of a wall at Grand River Rocks and dancing down King Street for a late night Don’s run, I finally became reacquainted with my long-lost inner child.

Surrounded by my friends, my world has felt brighter, and that has been a hopeful thought lately. That the lightness I’ve been missing this whole year is actually buried somewhere inside of me, deep under the layers of my unhealed past. I recently saw a TikTok that said “the most you’ll ever learn about love will come from your platonic female friendships.” When I close my eyes and think about my 3B term, I will remember the nights spent baking (and baked) in my living room laughing with my girlfriends, I will remember the clutter of makeup being passed around as we share outfits to get ready for a party, and I will remember the kindness of friends who, within days of meeting me, were willing to help heal a heart they didn’t even break.

a camera roll i never want to end <3 reunited with michigan friends and halloween in waterloo

As I’ve shifted into my early twenties, I’ve become acutely aware of how old my parents are. I’m sure they wouldn’t want me to share this, but every time I come home they’re not as young as I last remember them. When sharing his experiences with religion, my dad is a bit more nostalgic than he has been in the past. For him, relinquishing an absolute belief in Allah did not come at the cost of his inner peace of knowing that somewhere, out there, someone has a plan. For him, prayer simply transformed into meditation. Although it looks (and sounds, as he’s recently picked up the piano as his “flow” activity) different, he is just as spiritual as he once was. As his daughter, this brings me peace as well: for one, it’s good to see my parents happy. You start to realize as you get older that all the attention and care your parents gave you as a child has merely shifted into your own concern for them.

On a more personal level, understanding my father’s experiences with religion has given me some insight into my own inner compass. As I navigated single college life this semester, I felt many moments of loneliness. Working on yourself is great, but how do you deal without having a go-to person to share it with? This is why I decided to believe that I am never truly alone. Although I may not believe in God, I think that this year has taught me that somewhere out there, the universe must have a plan for me. No matter what I am going through, I was meant to be experiencing this moment, and so I should give all my presence to it. (Can you tell I’ve been thoroughly enjoying making my Pinterest vision boards?)

I think for me, religion is at its core the practice of letting go of my expectations from life. This is what gives me the space to develop trust in the Universe, whatever that might look like. It’s learning to meditate and be grateful for the small moments you’re currently living in that your past self would have prayed for.

A couple weeks ago, I experienced a full circle moment as I was invited to speak on a mental health panel for Women in Computer Science. I shared that my first-year self, who planned these very events for WiCS, could have never imagined the peace I have found today. My biggest advice to the younger CS students was to tell themselves that both the past and the future are honestly, just constructs in your mind: all you tangibly have is the present. Waterloo is a university brimming with big dreams and even bigger plans. What they don’t teach you is how to hold on when it feels like those plans are falling apart; this is where the real self-development begins.

From recruiting in Orlando to game days in Michigan and endless nights in Waterloo, this fall helped me remember that my true home is within myself. And if there is one thing I have learned from rebuilding my life this past year, it is that there are always more lives left to live: you just have to trust the Universe enough to give a new one a chance.

remember friends, we’re all just out here floating on a giant spinning rock.

--

--

Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, she/her