from standard protocol

Words by sumeeta farrukh

illustration by mia carnevale

forging my own path through the university algorithm

What does it mean for a program to be efficient? How do you design an algorithm to produce the correct result in the least amount of time, while using the fewest computational resources? In computer science, we spend an awful lot of time studying this question of efficiency.

In any algorithm, we generally want to minimize two things: the runtimes and the memory required. We want less time and less required space.

We use data structures to store information, and we find the fastest ways to traverse these structures. A graph is one such structure; a bunch of points connected by edges. In a graph, we’re interested in finding the shortest path between two points. A tree is a special kind of graph where two points can be connected by exactly one path—like a binary tree, where the root node has at most two children, who in turn have at most two children, and so on. At any point, you can only go left or right, and your destination has only one route. We like binary search trees because they allow for faster searching of specific values. In all of our programs, we streamline, we eliminate the dead code, and we find ways to optimize the algorithms to improve them from quadratic complexity: to exponential, to linear, to logarithmic, to constant.

You would think that, as someone who has spent a long time learning about this, I would have been able to apply these studies to my own path. But here I am, entering the sixth year of my undergrad, unsure of what my next steps are.

I feel like the longer I’ve been here, the harder and more exhausting it is—like I’m dragging myself on my elbows, just trying to get to the finish line. 

When people see me around campus, they often ask: “I thought you graduated?” “Why didn’t you graduate?” “Oh, are you doing your Master’s?” Embarrassed, I try to laugh it off as I rush through my standard stream of words to most quickly dispel any sentiments of pity: “No, I haven’t. Still doing my undergrad, but I’ll be done soon. I only have two courses left. I’ll be graduating in June,” etc.

When people ask why I’m doing a sixth year, I tell them I took reduced course loads and worked jobs here and there. I tend to brush over the reality of my situation, which has looked something like: yearly quarter-life crises; mental breakdowns; calls to the Registrar; visits to the Dean’s Office; consultations with Accessibility Services; dropped courses; late withdrawals; late, LATE withdrawals; almost-fails; and almost-drop-outs.

And when people ask me what I’m studying, I tell them I’m double-majoring in Computer Science and Linguistics. A lot of times they’ll tell me how smart I must be, which is nice, but also a little misguided. I’ve had a lot of difficulty in my program; it can take a long time to understand basic things. I have spent too much time re-evaluating whether this field was right for me.

I know I’m smart, but maybe not in the way that people envision me to be. Sometimes they’ll tell me that they wouldn’t have guessed I’m a computer science student. This either means they didn’t expect me to be capable of it, or that I don’t fit into the stereotype.

But none of those things are necessarily correlated, and none of them are mutually exclusive. I am more than my chosen path and the stereotypes associated with my majors.

Starting university was weird for me because I felt boxed into an identity based on my field of study. I loved poetry, but I was too afraid to submit anything to Acta Victoriana because I didn’t think I was a real writer like all of those students who studied English Lit. I had always loved drama, but I was too afraid to audition for plays for a lot of the same reasons.

Whatever it was I was interested in, I told myself I wasn’t one of those people. I couldn’t write an essay because I wasn’t a humanities student. I couldn’t be creative and artistic because I was in such a logical, mathematical discipline. This imaginary box was a largely self-imposed restriction, but it felt like everyone, at least initially, enforced it and played along. I was at the beginning of my binary tree, my first major fork in the road. I went one way thinking I had to choose.

I have a distinct memory from one morning in first year, sitting in what used to be Wymilwood café (in the ancient times when the Goldring was being renovated) and seeing a poster for The Bob, Victoria College’s sketch comedy show. I was interested but immediately considered it unreachable. I figured that everyone involved knew each other, that they’d been doing it forever, and that they were all more talented than I was. I had no idea how people got comfortable or confident enough to make it to anything at that level.

But here I am, entering the sixth year of my undergrad, unsure of what my next steps are.

I started getting more involved at Vic slowly, taking baby steps. I began first as a Frosh Leader, which I loved, but which lasted only one week out of the year. One of my friends encouraged me to apply for the position of Communications Coordinator on VUSAC, because she knew it’d be a great way for me to combine my computer skills with my creative passions. From there, things sort of snowballed; everything just became a series of opportunities that led to each other. My time as Communications Coordinator led me to run for Arts & Culture Commissioner, which involved me producing The Bob. Producing The Bob led to my successful audition the following year, four years after seeing that poster and thinking it could never happen. My love for Frosh Week led to me eventually becoming an Orientation Exec, which led to me becoming a Don.

In the midst of my social success, however, I continued struggling in school. I frequently had to drop courses, which caused me to be a semester behind, and then another semester, and then another semester, and so on.

My parents worried that I was getting too involved in things that didn’t involve my studies, attributing my extracurricular involvement to my levels of stress. Everyone has a little trouble balancing everything, and I was no different—but I don’t think that was the issue. I wasn’t involved in anything in first year, and was only very minimally involved in things second year. Yet, I still struggled in school then, I felt stupid, and my mental health still suffered. Only, before my involvement in student groups, I had the added bonus of feeling lonely, and I believe focusing solely on school wouldn’t have helped. My extracurriculars therefore became an escape from what would otherwise be a dull life of studies; they were vital to my growth.

It took me a while to accept that maybe the university path isn’t meant to be linear. Maybe it’s not even a tree, with binary choices and forks in the road. I like to think that it looks more like a graph—in particular, a weighted graph. A weighted graph is one that associates each edge to a certain number, or weight. A common procedure is to find the minimum spanning tree, the set of edges that connects all the points while minimizing the weight. Perhaps I didn’t want the minimum spanning tree experience in university, but rather the maximum spanning tree experience.

Every time I divert from that short, efficient, and convenient path, I think of all the people I picked up along the way.

I started at one point and wanted to take the long way around, to take the path that let me experience every aspect of university life to the fullest that I could—the path with the most weight. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been short. But, it’s been rewarding and has massively impacted who I am today.

Every time I divert from that short, efficient, and convenient path, I think of all the people I picked up along the way, my families growing with each step. I started on the Main Floor of Annesley Hall with my Mainsley family. I then met my fellow frosh leaders. I had my VUSAC family, my Orientation Exec family, then my Bob family, and my Don family. Even the students on my floor whom I donned became a part of my family, too.

The reality is that I learned far more by becoming involved at Victoria College than I would have had I focused solely on academics and, to this day, I’m still learning.

Maybe I didn’t take the fastest route, but I sure as hell took the scenic route.