UCLA, Half Way There
Oct 10, 2020 • Matt Wang • ~ 23 minute read • 4205 words
Wow! It’s been a bit more than two years at UCLA, and life has been surprising me. Beyond the fact that we’re in a global pandemic, major political turmoil, and the plethora of other things that make this “strange times”, I am just a bit surprised at the person that I’ve become. I’m glad that I’ve made some changes in my life for the better, but I’m also unhappy to report that there’s still a lot to improve, and in some cases, some regression.
I’ll spend this blog post briefly touching on a few topics of broad reflection; in an exercise of conciseness, privacy (it is recruiting season, after all), and an attempt to not bore you, I’ll try to keep this one short. Every time I say that, it never ends up being true - here’s to the first.
For a bit of context (and reflection), I’ll quickly run through what I’ve been doing with my life for the past two years - split up by quarters (roughly analogous to seasons). Feel free to skip this part, it’s pretty dry.
I arrived at UCLA in Fall 2018 as a Computer Science & Engineering major. I met lots of cool people, took 3 and a half classes, and joined a few clubs: the UCLA Debate Union, ACM Teach LA, and BEAM - I started teaching weekly STEM classes/workshops for the latter. I also found myself spending a lot of time at the UCLA MakerSpace. I went to Chicago for Thanksgiving with a friend. I started regularly going to the gym. I returned to Toronto to see some friends for the winter break.
In Winter 2019, I started ramping things up. I took my first 4 class quarter, going against counseling advice and doubled up on math (and got the worst grade I’ve received so far, in Physics 1A). I kept on meeting lots of new people, but started to strengthen a few friend groups. As part of the debate team, I competed (and won) BP tournaments at Berkeley and USC, winning top speaker at the latter. I started taking my role at ACM Teach LA and BEAM more seriously, including writing my first new lesson plan for BEAM and contributing significantly to the Teach LA codebase. I also got a job at the UCLA MakerSpace. At a networking event, I accepted an offer to work for Booz Allen Hamilton in the summer.
In Spring 2019, I tried to prioritize. I took 4 classes again (two CS, two math), and did pretty well. I think I regressed a bit on trying to meet new people. I quit the debate team since I didn’t feel like it was a good fit for me. I was promoted to Dev Team Director for Teach LA, and kept on volunteering at BEAM - including dipping my toes into academic pedagogy. I kept on working at the MakerSpace, and created a workshop to teach people how to make t-shirts.
In Summer 2019, I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton. It was a great educational experience, and pushed me out of my comfort zone in terms of technology (I worked on embedded systems and security). I lived close to campus in an apartment, and practiced being an adult. I went to Virginia for the internship, then spent a bit of time in Toronto before returning to LA to do some set up work at the MakerSpace. I also made Teach LA’s website. I spent less time going to the gym, but more time running.
In Fall 2019, I really dove into classes and extracurriculars. I took 4 classes (including my first upper div CS class), and committed to the double major. I got to meet a few first-years and transfers, which awesome. I started taking on non-dev responsibilities for Teach LA, including teaching an AI & ML class (which was very new to me), and also rapidly grew our dev team (something I’ve talked about at length on this blog). I tried to keep on doing BEAM, though timing became tough. I got promoted at the MakerSpace to a Lead Technician, and took a very active role in workshops. I stayed in LA for Thanksgiving. I returned to Toronto again for the winter break, aggressively couch-surfing; while I was there, I accepted an offer to intern at AWS.
In Winter 2020, things got more stressful. I took my first 5 class quarter, which was a very straining experience. My responsibilities for Teach LA ballooned, and took over more of my life, including proposing the first learning lab (an interactive educational web module); I spent even less time on BEAM. I still kept working at the MakerSpace, and had lots of fun making custom Valentine’s Day gifts and chocolates. Right before the pandemic struck, ACM held elections and I became the president of Teach LA. I took my first set of online finals. I made it a resolution to read more during 2020. I also started to really focus on running, including runs with friends throughout Westwood, and running 5Ks on the track.
In Spring 2020, I mismanaged by quarantine life. I (unfortunately) took 5 classes again, when I really should have dropped one. I interviewed and appointed my board for Teach LA, and we began the daunting task of shifting our teaching to be fully online - we were able to give a few online classes and events. I also gave a passion talk on EdTech for ACM Hack. I worked on printing and sewing PPE at the MakerSpace, before they had to cease operations for COVID. I moved to an apartment (instead of the dorms); there, I got better at cooking, destroyed my sleep schedule, and exercised less frequently. I did, however, spend more time reading. I was extremely strict about quarantining and social distancing. I really did not enjoy this quarter.
In Summer 2020, things somehow got worse. I interned at AWS, which was a tough experience. Without delving too deeply, it was a solid learning experience, but one fraught with extreme stress, extreme mental taxation, and a total disruption of any work-life balance. I also continued working on Teach LA obligations, including running an online educational event, teaching a 15-hour web development crash course, and piecing together a React Native course for high schoolers. I got to 1-on-1 my entire Teach LA board, which was nice. I also threw myself into ACM recruitment, spending easily over 20 hours doing some sort of info session, panel, or individual outreach and meetings. I took two classes online (to reduce the number of 5 class quarters), which were also my first GEs. I remained very strict on quarantining and social distancing. I learned a few more recipes, and started baking frequently; I generally kept up my pace in reading. At the tail end, I tried to get back more into exercising.
And now, it’s Fall 2020. Let’s see how this goes.
Naturally, this wouldn’t be a rambling Matt Wang post without some reflections. I’ll aim for breadth here rather than depth, both to cover as many bases as possible and also to generally reflect privacy.
Overall, debating is almost a non-existent part of my life, and I’m not sure if that’s a great thing.
On one hand, I’m glad that I have become (generally?) less “debatey” - I’d like to think I’m less argumentative, more friendly, and more open-minded (in a respectful way, not in terms of my personal opinions). It also no longer defines who I am - in high school, I was the “debate person” - and that’s a relief, even if it wasn’t a fully correct one. And, the Canadian debate community is definitely a bubble - it slants hard politically and culturally - so escaping that has given me more perspective.
On the other hand, there’s a lot that I miss. I miss constantly devouring news articles, papers, and books on a wide variety of topics (though I’m trying to do that now). I miss debating a wide variety of contentious topics, on sides I don’t agree with, and losing to world-class debaters (my favourite part of debating). And, beyond that, I miss the tight-knit debate community I had in high school; I haven’t found anything quite like that at UCLA.
How do I feel about quitting UCLA debate? I think it was the right move, given the information I had then, and given what I know now. If the environment was different (the debate team was more competitive, there was a better cultural fit, there was more regional competition), then maybe I could’ve stayed; but with limited time, I’m not sure if even that would’ve been good for my sanity.
I’m going to miss working at the MakerSpace.
For a slightly-above minimum-wage job, it was pretty awesome. It was a great opportunity to learn a wide range of making skills: I had a bit of experience with Illustrator & laser cutting before joining the team, but I got much better at using both in no time; on top of that, I learned a lot about 3D printing, CAD, vinyl, CNC’s, creating molds, fabrics, and sewing + embroidery! I also got to pass on these skills to other people. I loved teaching workshops, running events (custom chocolate-making!!), and trying to present making as an inclusive activity for everyone, regardless of STEM/coding backgrounds. And, beyond that, the people were fun - I loved most of my coworkers, and I got to meet tons of other staff, faculty, and fellow students.
That being said, it’s still hard to gauge if it was an effective use of my time. It was a solid 10 hours of my week, and it’s like the compensation was … ideal. If I had to put it differently, I would definitely pay ~ $120 to have 10 extra waking hours every week; so, why would I go the other way?
I’m definitely sad that COVID interrupted my MakerSpace shenanigans; regardless of whether or not I’d be working there, I always loved the space. It was a great place to really delve deep into making something. And, possibly even more than software, that’s a great feeling.
acm (teach la et al.)
This is something that I’m still thinking about (so it’ll be short), but generally I’m glad that I had the chance to join ACM. If anything, I wish I took things a little bit more seriously in my first year; it would’ve prevented me from making quite a few mistakes in the year after. Beyond just Teach LA, there’s a host of problems in our CS community and culture that I’d like to fix; I don’t think I spent enough time doing that over the past few years.
Teach LA is definitely the thing I’m the most proud of at UCLA. The dev team, teaching classes, speaker series & events, all of it. I’m excited to keep on working on it, though I’m afraid I’m approaching quite a few things in the wrong way. More on that later.
I ended up mostly fulfilling the goal, which was a CS & Econ double-major. I think Math-Econ makes a lot of sense: the overlap between math and computer science is too good to pass up, and it seems like math is equally if not more important for economics graduate school. Unfortunately, it’s made course planning a nightmare, and it’s given me my fair share of overburdened quarters. I only reap the benefits down the line - I’m just now taking optimization & probability, and will take econometrics next quarter) - but I hope it’s all worth it.
I do wonder: what if I swung harder into the social sciences? In some senses, economics has disillusioned me recently: see the mismatch between stock market & global economy, failure of ESG, failure of economics in influencing policy decisions. What if I double-majored in public policy instead? Or sociology? Political science? Philosophy? At this point, it’s probably a bit too late to switch, but I’m curious just how valuable this double-major ends up being in the long run.
And of course, there’s always the question of “why not just do CS and learn this on your own”? I’m pretty firm that I’m bad at self-learning math, but is it the same for public policy or economics or sociology? After all, isn’t that what I had to do for debating in high school? We’ll have to wait a bit more until I can fully answer that question.
the (lack of) research
One of my larger failures at college has been the fact that I haven’t done any research yet. The production of knowledge, driving major technology and policy decisions, and doing it all in the public domain - that’s a very enticing offer for me. Yet, I have zero idea if it’s something that I’m good at, or even something that I’d like. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do some research over the next two years - I owe it to myself to at least give it a shot.
Partially, I’ll say that I could’ve committed harder to doing it in my first-year: being much more proactive with seeking out labs, talking to profs & grad students, and applying to research positions. I definitely was too on-the-fence, and let other things swallow up my time (e.g. working part-time, juggling several extracurriculars). Given what I know now, I definitely would’ve looked to do research in my first year.
I’ll keep this short; I’ve talked about Booz Allen at length, and I’ll eventually drop something on Amazon. I’m grateful for the internship opportunities that I had, but at the same time, I’m not entirely satisfied.
Booz Allen was an opportunity to push my boundaries, but it was a sort of negative confirmation: it cemented that I preferred higher-level programming, and it made it clear that anything tangentially related to defense was not my cup of tea. I didn’t have too much choice in the matter - it was my only offer, late into the recruiting season - but I’m still left feeling a little lukewarm. That being said, it was still a great learning opportunity, and a huge part of my professional development.
Amazon/AWS was … interesting. We’ll leave it at that for now, and maybe I’ll revisit things later.
exercise and health
This is something that I’m generally actually proud of!
Before coming to UCLA, I was notoriously unfit and unhealthy; I did very little exercise (other than being terrible at sports), ate very unhealthily, and slept way too infrequently for a teenage boy.
Now, I think I’ve solidly improved on two out of three fronts. My first resolution after coming to UCLA was to exercise more: I committed myself to blocking out time during each week to go to the gym or to run. By second year, I really set into a routine: before the pandemic hit, I was running 5Ks almost every other day. And, while I slipped a little during the initial quarantine phase, I’m happily back on track to running and working out frequently. While I don’t necessarily feel many of the effects just yet, I’m still satisfied with my newfound athleticism.
I also committed myself to eating better, which required substantially less effort. UCLA’s dining is a huge reason why: they have tons of great options for healthy food that tastes amazing, which makes eating healthy as easy as flour-and-sugar-free cake. I surprisingly got really into eating salads (high school me is shaking), and generally watched what I was putting into my body. I’m definitely not perfect - I’ve had my fair share of late-night pizzas, chicken tenders, and onion rings - but it’s a marked improvement from high school. As a fun side effect, I also (mostly) don’t drink Coke anymore - a far cry from my previous 2+ cans a day!
On cooking, it’s surprisingly easy (in fact, I think easier) to cook healthy. I’m grateful that we have pretty cheap fresh vegetables close by, and I’ve mostly stopped buying meat (I’m vegetarian ~ 6 days a week). Physically seeing what you put into your food makes it even easier to be conscious of exactly what you’re eating.
Sleep is probably a regression at this point. In high school, I consistently slept 5/6 hours a day - awful for any teenage boy, but at least somewhat consistently. Now, due to a combination of more demanding priorities, bouts of insomnia, and some really inconsiderate neighbours, I’m ranging from 2-10 hours a day. Quarantine has definitely made things worse, as any semblance of schedule went out the window; still, I’m optimistic that I can make some improvements in these next two years.
Compared to the private school elite, I’d wager I was more on the independent side; but, at the end of the day, I was still pretty sheltered in high school. These past two years have thrown me into the deep end of fending for myself, and I think it’s generally gone pretty well.
Small things like laundry, cleaning consistently, and recycling come pretty naturally to me, which is a bit surprising - I struggled with maintaining these routines in high school.
Cooking and grocery shopping has also been surprisingly breezy. I’m definitely not a master chef or anything, but I’ve got a solid rotation of meals that are healthy, relatively cheap, and taste moderately good - which for a college student, is really all you can ask for. I’ve also recently got into baking (like many other lonely quarantiners), and that’s been an unexpected addition to my cooking arsenal.
There is the nightmare of setting up bank accounts, managing bills, and filing taxes. Overall, I’ve done an alright job here - cataloging all my expenses, spending frugally, and some basic budgeting - but I’m sure I could be doing much better. The paperwork is definitely tricky, especially as my parents don’t live in the country and I don’t have a “permanent address”. Still, I’m relatively satisfied with where I’m at now.
Still, I recognize that I have a lot of privilege in “adulting”: finances are stressful, but a combination of scholarships, part-time work & internships, and lending makes me relatively secure in the grand scheme of things. As a byproduct, I’ve seen others struggle with the (lack of a) social safety net in the U.S. - but that’s a topic for another day.
people i know
I won’t delve too deep in here either, but I think that I’ve mostly diversified the types of people I know, compared to high school. Granted, I’m still in quite a few bubbles (UCLA, CS, etc.), but compared to the shelter of private school in midtown Toronto, I think this is a pretty big win. And in turn, it’s given me more perspective to keep me grounded - always a plus.
An interesting observation: in high school, I was the debate kid who was the odd one out by being passionate about computer science. I didn’t have the chance to meet many other CS-interested people within my school, and I never really broke into tech culture in Toronto.
Here at UCLA, it’s almost the exact opposite. In the lens of classes and extracurriculars, I’m squarely in a sea of tech-focused students, and tech culture has become pretty central to my life. In some senses, this has been great - it’s definitely been a great opportunity to learn - but it came at cost. My university friends and peers are actually less politically involved, in tune with current affairs, or care about social sciences. It runs contrary to the common stereotype about coastal colleges, but it’s also just a function of my major and what I do with it. That being said, it’s not like tech is devoid of these people - far from that - and I’m enjoying finding my niche.
In sum, this shift hasn’t been wholly good or bad, but I view it pretty positively. Here’s to meeting more people.
For some reason or another, I really stopped reading in the tail end of high school. For most of first-year, I remained in a walled-off garden that consisted of Economist articles and the occasional book. This calendar year, I really committed myself to reading more, and I’m generally happy about how things are going.
After almost a 5-year hiatus, I got back into reading fiction for the sake of reading fiction (opposed to cultural relevance, political analogies, etc.). Haruki Murakami books have been my driving force here. I plan on finishing all of his books by the end of the year - an ambitious goal, but definitely still doable. There’s something uniquely escapist about his books that I haven’t found elsewhere. I don’t know what I’ll do once I’m done his catalog.
And, I’ve gone back into reading about politics and economics. I’m a bit more sure about my fascination for development economics, so diving in there has been great; I’m curious if I’ll have a much better perspective reading Capital this time around. Interestingly though, this has gone hand-in-hand with significantly reducing my news intake. And honestly, I’m not sure if that’s an awful thing. I used to be a huge news-devourer, easily reading 1+ hours of current affairs every day. Yet, I don’t feel like there’s a large void in my knowledge: while I’m definitely much less informed about what’s happening in the world right now, I think I’ve also realized that full knowledge is an impossibly tough goal. Still, I think I’ve swung a bit too hard into the no-news lifestyle, and I may change things up in the coming years.
I’m curious if I’ll start reading more academic papers, either for personal or professional/academic reasons. Haven’t had an obligation to do that so far, but I never have for reading books.
There are some broader, more private reflections I have on how I’ve changed. I think I’ll keep most of those to myself for the time being, but here are some that made it into this post.
I do think that coming to UCLA has dramatically shifted my personality. Most visibly, I’ve mellowed out and gotten a better temper. Some of that comes with maturity, but UCLA gave me an opportunity to reinvent myself, and I took that very liberally.
I’ve learned a lot about being more inclusive: better use of language, creating a welcoming culture, and noticing people who are being left out. That being said, I’m sure I still have several blind spots, and I’m driven to do better every day. There are some interesting thoughts I have on work-life balance, prior knowledge, and precedents, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Interestingly, I think my politics and philosophy have actually not shifted at all since coming here. That seems slightly worrying to me. I can’t imagine being right about anything in high school, let alone the ground truths that guide the rest of my life. There is a bit of pride in sticking to my guns, but only time will tell if it was the right move.
I’ve become a less eloquent writer and public speaker. On writing, I’ve always been pretty bad - but I’ve noticed that I’m not packing the same punches that I did when I was in high school, writing giant background guides or position papers. On speaking, I’ve swung harder into an informal, energetic, and occasionally meme-y style. It suits a few occasions very well (e.g. club meetings), but I’ve gotten much rustier in almost everything else. I believe that versatility in speaking styles is a really important skill in life, so hopefully I’ll repair things quickly.
I’ve talked about this a few other times, but my music taste has shifted pretty dramatically too. Less hard rap, more bedroom & indie pop, alt-rock, and R&B. Traded out EDM for electronica. I’m still enjoying using Last.fm and tracking my song of the week.
I feel more tired. It’s not the type of tired you should be feeling at 19. But oh well. Let’s hope.
you’re only half way there
It’s been an interesting two years, for sure, and there’s only so much I can capture as I ramble into this blog post. I honestly believe that the past two years have been pretty life-changing for me, especially in terms of attitude, health, awareness, and software skills. I’d like to think that I’ll look back on life and view the transition to university as an extremely positive transformative force. It certainly feels that a lot of things have changed for the better.
That being said, I’ve had my fair share of shortcomings and regressions over the past few years. These next couple are pretty crucial. They’ll (generally) establish what I’ll do for the next decade or so of my life. They’ll determine a set of life-long friendships and relationships. And, they’ll give me the first opportunity to leave a truly positive legacy. It’s a lot, for sure, and I’m not confident that I can play all my cards perfectly.
So, what will it be?