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Life Lessons from my nomadic co-op adventures

2 March 2011

Life can be nomadic when you are a co-op student at the University of Waterloo – especially if you are open to venturing outside the GTA or KW. My first work term was in Waterloo, but after that I tried to always venture wherever I could find an interesting opportunity or city. Here are some life lessons I wish I knew before I signed up for coop.

Kid Sarnia

My co-op adventures first brought me to the bustling city of Sarnia, Ontario. It’s home to a significant number of companies in “Chemical Valley”, and probably home to a fair share of chemical engineers in Ontario. My work term was with Imperial Oil in their Research Centre. You can see naive Kevin from January 2006.


I thought it would be convenient to live in an area that would allow me to walk or take the bus to work (see red pin below), and naturally this led me to housing around Confederation St. It also helped that the area was cheaper in rent. It isn’t hard to see that Confederation St is the confluence between the industrial plants in Chemical Valley and lower income housing. And if it isn’t obvious in the satellite view, it is pretty damn obvious when you are driving through it… with your parents.

This brings us to Lesson #1:

Research neighbourhoods when you are moving to a new city

The beauty of a 4 month work term is that it is, well, only 4 months. My living experience in Sarnia wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but still a nice life lesson to look back on.

Je me souviens Montreal

My next co-op adventure led me to Montreal, Quebec. I managed to get another R&D work term, but this time in the pharmaceutical industry with Merck Frosst. The job location was in Kirkland, an Anglophone suburb of Montreal, but I thought I would change things up and live in downtown Montreal. This time I did my homework and found some interesting neighbourhoods. I settled with Mont Royal. I have no idea why I chose the place – but I think I remember reading it was a trendy neighbourhood, unique architecture, and something about parks. The only catch to was that the commute was 1.5 hours.

Now let me share with you Life Lesson #2a:

Keep your commute time to less than 20 minutes from door to desk

It’s one thing to measure your one way commute, but you should always look at the bigger picture. Everyday I was guaranteed to spent a minimum of 3 hours a day in transit. 15 hours a week. 10 days in 4 months. Putting things into perspective, I spent 40% of my free time in transit assuming I tried to live a balanced life with 8 hours of work, 8 hours of personal time, and 8 hours of sleep during weekdays- which I couldn’t achieve. Studies show that one of the requirements for a happy life is a short commute. Ideally a commute not longer than 20-30 minutes. With my experience in Montreal I could have been a test subject for numerous happiness studies.

Depending on my luck, my commute from Mont Royal to Merck Frosst involved:

  • Bus-Metro-Bus-Bus-Walk on days I was lucky
  • or Bus-Metro-Bus-Walk-Walk-Walk on days I wasn’t lucky

Moving onto Life Lesson #2b:

Avoid buses in your public transit commute

Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way that buses are extremely unreliable. Not to mention you can spend 30 minutes standing. Taking the Metro wasn’t so bad. But walking out your house to see the 24 bus zip by you isn’t a happy feeling. Neither is standing in line for the 470 express bus only to have the driver declare the l’autobus is full. You don’t have these experiences with rapid transit.

Boring Burnaby, Beautiful BC

Having completed my undergraduate, I embarked on my new life with BC Hydro in Burnaby, BC. This time I tried to combine Life Lesson #1 and #2. I wanted to live close to all the amenities: grocery store, bank, dry cleaners, and… BestBuy. At the same time, it had to be less than 20 minutes to work with transit. I used My Maps to plot all the the grocery stores, and I circled all the Skytrain stations that would allow me to reach my office within 15 minutes. This led me to Metrotown – a place I have been happy to live at for 1.5 years. If I had to do it over again I would have used Mapnificent. It’s a nifty tool that show you the area you can reach with public transport from any point in a given time.

Final Thoughts

You should always base your life decisions on what you value. It was easy for me to choose Metrotown as a place to call home because I would rather have disposable time than live in a downtown setting. I can see how someone may want to live in downtown and work in Edmonds – but not really.

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