the last one hundred metres

Areena Akhter
11 min readApr 29, 2024

waterloo, (september 2019 to) april 2024

I started writing this in my last month of undergrad, as I reflected on my time in university and the vastness of my life ahead. It ended up being a thank you note to the cities that housed me, the friends who loved me, and the adventures I had always dreamt of having. The University of Waterloo took a lot of things from me at times (my mental health, a sense of self-confidence, thousands of hours of sleep), but it gave me an unprecedented access to the world at an age young enough that border agents sometimes asked me if I was trying to run away from home instead of crossing the border for work. So thanks, Waterloo. You didn’t do me that dirty after all.

Nobody (really no one ever) would claim that a degree in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo is easy. For five years now, I’ve tossed myself around the continent, ricocheting from one identity to another as I wove in and out of student life and technocratic Corporate America. I never felt like either identity fit me quite right, but there was never any time to reflect on this, because I haven’t had the chance to take a break longer than two weeks since I started here in 2019.

But now, somehow, I’ve arrived at the very last month of my coveted education at this wonderful, godforsaken university! Twenty two days until I’m officially a software engineer —well technically, a computer scientist, although my job title when I start postgrad life four months from now will in fact be, Software Engineer. Who could’ve known, as I agonized over the seemingly life-altering decision to switch from SE to CS two years ago, that it wouldn’t even make a difference after all?

spreads from my first and last months as a waterloo student — how I used to think I might never get here…

Unlike what you’ll read poring over the threads of r/uwaterloo, I’ve found that the true intricacy of being a Waterloo student lies in how it shapes your perception of the world and the relationships you can form within it. Making friends who teach you that towns named ‘College Station’ exist in America, while wondering if you’ll ever even see said friend again after the next four months. Characters who start to play a recurring role in your life just because their coop sequence aligns with yours (and having to avoid some people too, for the very same reason). Constantly and perpetually being long distance with someone: your family, your partner, your hometown friends, your college roommates. You begin to question where exactly your “home” might be. Is it Waterloo, where all you’re made for is to take back-to-back hell week exams while recruiting both externally and on WaterlooWorks? Or California, or New York, or Boston, each snapshots in time of the versions of myself I defined as I grew into the mosaic I am today?

a project from the digital art class i finally took in my last semester at waterloo :’)

From ages 17 to 22 I lived in nine different apartments across five cities, carrying with me a slowly growing collection of wall art to help me recognize the buildings I’d call home. Before meeting the fellow women (soldiers) in tech I live with now, I explored various forms of cohabitation. Four months in a $750 sublet with mutuals I’d crossed paths with in my first year, who would end up teaching me profound lessons about the power of female friendship. Sharing one bathroom with four well-intentioned tech bros in their early twenties, and then, living alone, in both a beautiful one bedroom apartment in Mountain View next to the birthplace of the silicon chip, and subsequently in a tiny dorm on the eighth floor of the New Yorker hotel, on top of the Madison Square Garden subway station. In each city I would trace out my adventures on the city’s transit lines: the ION here, the “T” in Boston, the 22 Muni bus all the way from Dolores to the Uber offices in SF (although self-driving Cruises were equally as common there), and of course, catching New York’s iconic but often delayed L train from 14th and Union Square. Learning to live without baggage as I moved through these cities was exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking, but at the same time, it wrote the origin story for the nomadic life I live today.

20 years old with dates at boston’s seaport and salem in october, to relaxation pods at uber and sausalito at sunset, and finally life in nyc, my favourite city of all

With each new experience I accumulated, it would dawn on me how precious my strange and sudden immersion into adult life really is . What a time to be alive! Still in school but getting out in the world to figure out what you want to learn, first. Making the type of money that lets you pay off your tuition, start shopping at Sephora, and fly to New York just to sneak into the mosh pits of a Fred Again concert. And all the memories I’ve collected along the way: trips to Tahoe, lazy weekends meandering down the West Side Highway, discovering my favourite sandwich at a café called 3 Little Figs that was steps from my first cozy American home and less than 10 minutes from Harvard’s main campus. Kayaking down the Charles, ziplining in Sonoma, cramming into packed subway cars to see Pride from Washington Square Park, hiking next to cows on a random hill (Mission Peak) in the suburbs of South Bay, dancing at La Caverna and in line for Monroe’s, bottomless brunch in Dolores, celebrating my oddly warm October birthday sunbathing on Baker Beach in front of that iconic red bridge.

I try sometimes to write about all the people I’ve met over the course of my adventures: my first US coop friends at the Formhaus who helped me figure out how to get my SSN, my first Twitter mutual Daniela who I’ve stayed in touch for years now from Boston all the way to New York, my old manager David who rode to work on his motorbike and bought me Melissa’s cupcakes on my birthday. My roommates Tara and Raifah in SF, the first of many second-generation South Asian women I’d learn to love for how they embraced the less-than-Eurocentric facets of their identities. The 7th floor Uber crew, Alex, Kailey, Jake, and more, a subset of the massive intern group led by Miss Jaya that rented a boat in Tahoe and would reunite on the Rick’s dance floor on a Michigan football weekend in November. My circle of South Bay friends who I’d sneak into the Dean to make my one-bed feel less lonely and spend hours talking to in the hot tub until our skin shrivelled up and we wondered at the luxury of being outside in our bikinis in the middle of January. Meeting Sarah Ukani at a happy hour in Midtown and Sahya at a pregame in South Bay of all places and Lisa at kickboxing and Raewyn in the Dean and Kritika and Sofie and Rachel in our super senior year of college, and dancing around Manhattan and the Marina and uptown Waterloo with these girlfriends who have seen me through the toughest seasons of my life and stayed by my side. It’s impossible for me to capture how much every friendship has meant to me, except for to share that I love the way that all of you have a snapshot of me in your minds just as I do for you, and I’ll hold tightly to those memories regardless of however far apart our long distance relationships end up becoming.

friendships formed all over the continent, over good music and good vibes and the celebration of our futures as SINKs (single income no kids)

Of course, I did go to school to get this degree. Waterloo by the numbers: one failed core CS course (introduction to programming, with a 48), two coop jobs lost (COVID and a folded startup), four clubs joined and quit after realizing that I hated how student organizations treat you like an employee, more than 1000 jobs applied to (over six application cycles), and an unknown but definitely high number of assignments I took a zero on in favour of grinding for an interview the next day. But also, 80s and 90s in CS 451: Big Data, CS 486: AI, SYDE 599: Deep Learning, CS 497: AI Ethics, PSYCH 256: Intro to Cognitive Science. Award nominations for best philosophy essays, many panels spoken on for Women in Computer Science, and training a transformer to predict Spotify music preferences from scratch using PyTorch. It’s a testament to the determination of everybody involved in the production of this degree that I made it here today with an average above 80, a new grad job offer, and my sanity still intact. While I’ve noticed lately that I’m somewhat more cynical as a person than I was at the start of 1A, it makes sense to me because this university didn’t teach me how to succeed, really. It showed me how to face failure and uncertainty and disappointment over and over again, until I arrived at a point where it stopped eliciting a reaction from me altogether.

So what I wish they’d told me on my first day at at this school is that everything about Waterloo is a game. Unfortunately, anybody who wasn’t a little bit of an ‘incel’ (wish I never had to learn that word) in high school just never had the need to learn it. For example: not all engineers look the same, no matter what your upper year CS classes might look like, and as long as you study the material like everybody else, the halls of MC can be a fashion show if you want it to be. Don’t lose who you were outside of school, but don’t expect to get this degree and be the same after it. Just like learning any language, your brain changes while learning how to code, to speak in algorithms. And while it is SO normal to have desires other than getting a job or doing well in school, the one thing that Reddit does get right is that you’ll have to sacrifice those desires at times to instead review Grokking the Coding Interview for the seventeenth time if you want to be “top talent,” according to the rules someone wrote to game that is SWE recruitment. But that is the game we signed up for, just as med students have to take the MCAT and law students the LSAT and MBAs the GMAT. Play it, win it, and move on. This education, as gruelling as it was, is the biggest privilege I’ve had in my life so far.

me and my capstone research project, the culmination of years of learning how to be a responsible ml engineer

I remember how the day I landed in Boston, clutching the paperwork for what would be the first of my four J1 work visas to train in the United States, it dawned on me that the engineering degree I’d been so intently working to obtain was becoming my ticket to formerly inaccessible new worlds. Just as my parents leveraged their education in crossing oceans to build lives in Australia and Canada, I too was becoming an immigrant dreaming of the day I’d know the contours of foreign cities like the back of my hand.

This is why I know with certainty that although my next chapter is returning to the Camera and Photo Storytelling team at Apple to start my post grad grind, San Francisco is nowhere near the final stop on my travels around the world and further into understanding myself. Instead I hope it will be a season of settling into the self I have always dreamt of becoming: a writer, a storyteller, an AI engineer, creator and inventor. A wonderful friend and strong woman and at the same time just a twenty-something teenage girl who’s always down to do it for the plot.

As I stumble to the finish line of what I hope will be the last degree I put myself through, these last one hundred metres are feeling bittersweet. Like while I’m finally achieving the hopes and dreams of a seventeen-year old Areena who cried in the A&W line at an EnRoute when she first got into Waterloo, I’m also realizing that my twenty two year old self has started to hope and dream of different things altogether. And so I’ve started to tell myself that this particular finish line merely marks the start of the many other races I now have time to train for. From the literal half marathons I want to sign up for after joining one of SF’s plethora of ocean-side run clubs (TikTok told me they’re like Hinge in real life), to the writing workshops and workout classes and endless nights at dimly lit dance bars that await me, one could argue that my postgrad life will in fact be more full than it ever has been: and in that exact freedom lies the beauty of the five-year Waterloo degree.

see you soon san francisco

I have spent my whole life dreaming of the places I might go, the people I could encounter, the things I might see. And suddenly I am here. Thank you to all that cheered me on through the hard legs and the ones where I felt invincible: I can’t wait to see what we get up to next.

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Areena Akhter

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