Coming out of high school, I was one of those kids that didn’t really know what to do for university. There were lots of students like that, but I felt like the only one who didn’t even understand the ramifications of the future in my career choice. I couldn’t even make an informed decision. Although, I was smart enough to start researching. I already knew what subjects in school I was good at: math, physics, chemistry, programming, graphics design, and web development.
The last two were pretty artsy, and I felt that as fun as it was, I never thought I was good enough to actually pursue it as a career (and I still think so). It could also be because the way I was raised taught me that a career in the fine arts would be useless in the real world. I’m not saying that it is, but that kind of thought very often prevailed when students made career decisions. I forgot about pursuing web and graphic design as a career and left it alone as a hobby. I still do this today and am still quite satisfied with this decision.
When it came to math and the sciences, I did really well in high school (which doesn’t really say much as university showed). I thought about what I could do with these. The few career choices that came to mind were careers like: computer programmer, mathematician, physicist, chemist etc. Surprisingly, the thought of being an engineer never came across my mind. At the time, I had only heard the word being used, but never knew what it was.
I talked to a few of my friends about what they were going to take in university. A few of them told me they were going into engineering. Intrigued, I looked to find out more. The gist of what I got from the Internet was that “an engineer applies math and physics to design things that makes life better.” I also found that UBC and SFU both had information sessions for engineering. I visited the information session at SFU.
There, I got a whole slew of information about engineering. Each department in the faculty and a lot of student teams set up booths explaining what they were all about. To entice potential incoming high school students, they displayed a lot of cool things that they designed like helicopters, computer games, and just fancy gadgets. At that point, I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be so cool to build something like that?” I had no idea what kind of work the projects entailed. I was really focussed on the final product. I had no concept of what happened in between. To me, engineering seemed like the first half of that picture at the top.
I also went to the mechatronics information session there and that’s where I first learned about that discipline. I really liked the idea of blending mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer engineering together. It seemed like a great combination. The first thing that popped into my juvenile mind after was, “Cool! I can build robots like the ones people see in movies!” That kind of thought was quite naive, but regardless, it was the thought that dominated at the time. Such was the thinking of a child.
That pretty much convinced me to go into engineering. The next question was, “what school should I go to for that?” I knew I didn’t want to go too far away from home, so I really only had two options: UBC or SFU. I thought long and hard for a long time and eventually decided on UBC. At the time, I didn’t know if I made the right choice, but I did have two reasons for doing so.
One was the international reputation that UBC commanded. I could go to Hong Kong and talk about UBC and people would know what I’m talking about. Even people in Germany have heard of UBC. SFU? Not so much.
UBC also let me live in a home away from home in a way. I lived in Port Coquitlam and the commute from there to UBC took 1.5 hours each way. In order to avoid having to deal with that intense time sink every day, I got a spot in residence. That would teach me to live independently while having support from my parents. To this day, I am still glad I made that choice. I really did learn to live independently. In fact, I wrote this while I was still in Germany, thousands of kilometers away from family.
After making my choice of doing engineering at UBC, I got acquainted with the UBC campus and the residences and so once school started I was prepared. I was totally taken aback to how university life was different, but I managed to adjust. In the end, I went through first year with pretty good grades (high enough to be guaranteed entry into whatever specialization I wanted). Even then, I still had no idea what engineering was all about. The stuff I learned was all just theory. If anybody asked me to design anything, I would have been clueless. I still had not bridged the gap between theory and practicality.
During the summer after first year, it became time to make yet another career-defining choice: What discipline in engineering should I do? I researched pretty much every single one and I was left with three choices: mechanical engineering, engineering physics, and computer engineering. Even though I researched them all, I had no idea what they were all about.
I remembered the mechatronics info session I went to a year ago. The thought of building a robot still floated in my mind. As naive of a thought as that was, it got me really considering the mechatronics option in mechanical engineering. I looked on the Mech website and found out about the Mech 2 program. I really liked the way the curriculum was organized. I thought it had a great mix of learning theory and actually applying that theory to projects. I agreed with its goal of breaking down the artificial barriers between subjects. At that point, my mind was set on doing Mech. I had already missed the deadline for going straight into mechatronics from first year, but I felt that I could get in after second year.
Second year in mechanical engineering really taught me what it meant to be a mechanical engineer. I found out that Mech wasn’t just about cars, planes, trains, and boats, and that those things were only a small facet of a discipline with an abundance of possibilities. I found out that not every single engineer does design – some are in research, product safety, and even maintenance. Despite those other kinds of engineers, my primary interest still lay in design. I learned the process of actually going from just an idea to a final product – something that no info session ever taught me. In fact, some engineering curricula programs don’t teach it either. They seem to half-expect its students to figure out on their own and know how to apply the theory themselves. I had really interesting and useful classes that I could really apply in engineering designs. I could go on forever here, but the important thing is that after knowing all this, I still wanted to stay. It’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to design and build things. Every now and then someone will talk about some other profession having a better salary, but that doesn’t matter. Interest trumps that.
Looking back, I found it quite absurd as to how I ended up in mechanical engineering, but it’s what happened. I started off knowing next to nothing about the profession, and now I can’t think a better option. I am now in my fourth year of mechanical engineering, and if someone gave me the chance to go back and pick something else, my choice would not change.