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Courses, professors, POSts — advice from two scholarship-winning STEM graduates

Recipients of 2020 John H. Moss Scholarship, U of T Alumni Association Scholarship on how to succeed
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Entering an undergraduate program can be an overwhelming transition for many. However, the difficulties of being thrust into a new environment, a new city, or even a new country can be overcome with the right guidance.

Having already been in similar situations, upper-year students can be great mentors from whom first-year students can learn. In a written interview with The Varsity, John H. Moss Scholarship winner Lana El Sanyoura and U of T Alumni Association Scholar Arthur Lei Qiu, two highly accomplished 2020 graduates, described their paths as undergraduate students at the University of Toronto and provided advice to current and future students.

El Sanyoura, a computer science graduate, is currently an intern at Amazon and joined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in delivering a televised address to the country’s graduating class this summer. Qiu is a graduate of both mathematics and physics and received a scholarship to study abroad at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, Switzerland.

Selecting courses

Course selection is probably the first time students feel the beginning of an academic year. Every student keeps searching through a long list of courses offered by various departments to find the courses they want.

Students also talk with their peers and upperclassmen to find courses that are appropriate for them. Appropriate, however, usually means easy. While many students decide to take bird courses to boost their GPA, both El Sanyoura and Qiu disagree with this strategy and encourage students to take courses that they find interesting and useful for their future.

“Every course you take is a chance for you to grow your toolset, to learn something new, and to gain a new prerequisite to a potential opportunity,” El Sanyoura wrote, emphasizing how these courses can shape the future of students.

“Personally, I’d rather take a hard course in a subject area that I’m passionate about than an easy course in a subject area that I find uninteresting,” Qiu wrote, highlighting the significance of personal interest over grades.

It is also essential to point out that when you are interested in a course, whether because it is important to your future goals or you just enjoy the content, it is more likely that you’ll do better in that course.

Choosing professors

After deciding what courses to take, some students like to narrow their search by choosing ‘better’ professors. But can be misleading, as professors who are rated as poor teachers can still be excellent mentors and research supervisors.

“[Professors] pave the way for teaching us how to approach a problem, how to be critical of our own questions and possible solutions, and how to find ways of making others feel welcome and supported,” El Sanyoura wrote. “[I] have even gone to my professors for questions regarding future career goals and potential decisions I need to make.”

However, it is important to put advice in context. “I do think that professors can have a skewed perspective on some topics… Be aware that their words of wisdom might be biased, and try to listen to a variety of people from all walks of life,” Qiu wrote.

Choosing a field of study

One of the biggest academic challenges is trying to find the field of study that interests you the most. Thus, program of study (POSt) selection can be a stressful experience for students. “POSt is a very difficult topic to talk about because there is no recipe to make it into POSt per [se],” El Sanyoura wrote.

Apart from finding the right POSt, you must also work hard to get accepted, which may not always happen. However, this should not discourage students. There are lots of other programs and opportunities available. “When one door closes another door opens,” El Sanyoura wrote.

In addition, there is a lot of flexibility to POSt selection, and many students switch programs. “Remember that there’s usually some wiggle room for changing course,” wrote Qiu, who himself switched from astrophysics to mathematics.

Undergraduate years, being the beginning of a long journey, can be overwhelming. But at the same time, these years are when you find your interests and choose your path into the future. There are tons of opportunities, activities, and people in our undergraduate year that may shape our future. Thus, it is important to make the best of it and enjoy it while it lasts.