My First Year in Graduate School

I wished I could have bummed around at home longer, but alas I had to return to winter wonderland for the spring 2011 semester. Although I managed to escape the cold and snowy winter for three weeks, I was dropped back into the middle of it when I returned. It was an especially frigid and snowy winter this year, and having lived in mild Vancouver for more than a decade, I did not like the feeling of freezing my butt off. Waiting at the bus stop to go to the supermarket was painful. Regardless of how much I wore, it was still cold, but the coldest part of my body was my face. I remember on the coldest day where it was -20 Fahrenheit outside, I could feel my lips and the tip of my nose going numb and thought they were going to fall off. I definitely need to get a scarf for the next winter. How I wished I had a car too.

In addition to the cold, there was the snow which of course didn’t melt due to the cold temperature, so it piled up on the lawns and near the roads. The apartment complex I live in and my school did a decent job of salting and clearing the sidewalks, but that’s not the case for some of the other property owners. The city bus and school shuttle stop is not right next to my apartment, so I have to cross a street and walk in front of some houses to get there, and sometimes that got a little difficult because the lack of shoveling. I did get snow boots which made walking in the snow a little more manageable, but not by much.

The spring 2011 semester went pretty much the same way as the fall 2010 semester. I still took three courses and worked on my project on the side. Two of my classes were not too bad, but there was a control theory class that just kicked my ass. I think it was mostly because my controls background wasn’t strong, but the way the instructor taught the class also had something to do with it. I didn’t do too well on the midterm or the homeworks, and despite my over 100% final exam score I wasn’t able to get an A in the class. There goes my all A average for graduate school, but at least I proved that I was still clutch in final exams.

While going to class and freezing my butt off in the cold winter, I continued to look for my first car. I wouldn’t find my first car until spring break in March when my aunt found someone who was willing to let go of a 2006 Mercedes ML350 for a steal. The car does have some scratches, but there was no major damage and the mechanical/electrical components were perfectly fine. I never imagined I would be buying a Mercedes (especially one this new) for my first car, but the deal was too good to pass up. After searching for nearly half a year, I finally bought my first car, and once again it was big thanks to my aunt and uncle. Without them being around, things would have been a lot tougher for me.

Having a car to call my own for the first time was of course a liberating occasion. Suddenly I have the freedom to drive to the Chinese supermarkets or the shopping malls on my own now, and I no longer have to worry about how to carry bags of heavy stuff from the bus stop back to my apartment. I can also give rides to other people, but nowadays most of the people I know have bought cars so it’s mostly either just myself or me and my roommate. The ML doesn’t get great gas mileage (~21mpg on the freeway, less in town) and needs premium gas, but I don’t drive it much so gas costs aren’t a big concern. Insurance however is pretty costly, mostly because of the car’s value and that I’m in the high risk category of a 21-24 single male. Hopefully insurance cost will become lower with time. On the plus side, the car is really roomy, and has a nice list of amenities. I also love the high seating position of a SUV. Overall, the ML has been pretty good so far… so good in fact that it was attacked by a rodent not too long ago. It cost me $300 to fix the wires that were chewed through; I haven’t fixed the cosmetic damage to the plastic and foam yet. Other than that the car has been problem-free thus far, and hopefully will remain that way as long as I own it.

Winter eventually gave way to spring, and soon enough I was done with the spring semester. My parents came to visit me and my aunt in late May, and during that time my family visited some of the major cities in northeast United States. I haven’t had the chance to go on trips on my own, so it was pretty fun. It was good seeing my parents again, and it was also good to take a bit of a break after another academic term and before diving into full time research in the summer. I have owned my car for nearly five months at the time of writing and put somewhere between 2000-3000 miles on it, and most of those miles were probably from driving from place to place while my parents were visiting.

After my parents left, I have been spending most of my time working on my thesis project. Software projects are never ending, but I want to get at least enough done to write a thesis out of it. I think I’ve been making steady progress, but we’ll see if that’s really the case. Other than working on my research, I also upped my exercise regiment. I played badminton during the fall semester with the school’s badminton club and they weren’t a bad group for a small school in a small city. I can play better than most of the other members, but there were maybe 5-6 people who were very difficult opponents even if I play at my best. Unfortunately there wasn’t any badminton club in the summer, and so as replacement I started swimming and playing basketball with some colleagues. I haven’t swam regularly since grade 9 or 10 in secondary school, and I don’t think I’m a good swimmer. I can only do freestyle for about 50 meters before tiring out, and my breast stroke is dreadfully slow. Swimming is still a good exercise though, and I’m hoping I can work my way to a swimmer’s figure of having wide back and shoulders.

As for basketball, I never really played regularly before, and thus I’m not that good either. I can get rebounds and some put backs due to my size (usually being the biggest man on the court), but my shooting sucks because I never practiced, and I am a poor defender due to my slow footwork. My stamina is also lacking, so I get slower the longer I play. I look at basketball more as a way to have some fun and socialize, but it is a pretty demanding sport and it’s also easy to get hurt. I sprained my ankle not too long ago and rather not repeat that experience if I can help it. Once the next semester starts I’ll probably go back to playing badminton instead.

On the topic of sport and fitness, I think I did quite well over the last year. I was around 230 lbs and definitely overweight when I left Vancouver last year, and now I’m under 200. Even if the scales are inaccurate, I’m sure I lost at least 20 lbs. The main reasons for the weight loss are that I eat less (because cooking for myself is a bit of a chore) and also I exercise a lot more compared to when I was living at home. I go to the school fitness room regularly to lift weights and do cardio, and the effort paid off. Due to exercise and weight loss, I actually accomplished some of my not-so-impressive fitness goals. One goal was to be able to do 10 consecutive pull-ups, and I think I can do 15 maximum these days. I am also able to bench press my own body weight now. I can move 205 lbs up and down six times, although technically they don’t count as real bench press repetitions since I don’t lower the bar to my chest :razz: . I think I’ve gotten stronger in general over the last year, but the improvements aren’t dramatic and probably 10% increase in strength at the most. My cardio has gotten better too and I can slow jog on the treadmill for half an hour on a good day, but unfortunately that doesn’t translate into increased stamina in basketball. Obviously I’m still not muscle bound or really fit, but I’m slimmer than before I’ll continue work on my fitness. Getting research and course work done are important, but so is keep myself physically and mentally healthy. All work and no play makes people mad.

This is is about all I want to say for my past year and a bit. There are probably topics that I wanted to mention but forgot to, but I think I have spent way too much time writing this already :neutral: . My first year as a graduate student has been good and hopefully the experience will remain positive. I did some new things and met new friends, although I think I should still step up my effort to be more socially active. The next fall semester is about to start, and so I have to start preparing for class again. The next semester will be crucial for me since I have to complete my qualifying exams to be formally admitted into the PhD program, and I also have to complete my master’s thesis. It’ll be lots of hard work ahead, but I’m optimistic and confident that I can get through all of this. I didn’t come this far to fail, and I will do my best to prevail. If everything goes as planned, I should be done with my master’s degree by the end of this year and waiting for my diploma in the mail. Wish me luck.

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