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Freedom and Opportunities

Student experience in NUIG

One of the proudest moments of my life was to get admitted into a top 200 institution in the world. It was sinfully satisfying because my overachieving(but kind) cousin who used work with Amazon got into a New York university which was a 100 places less than NUIG(according to the 2016 subject rankings for Computer Science). The caliber of this university was validated once again later, when the overall university rankings were released and NUIG was the only Irish university to move ahead in the world rankings. The NUIG president released a statement that it was owed largely to the caliber of the staff.

You know it’s true when your information retrieval professor keeps quoting papers and articles out of thin air, faster than you can note them down. You know it’s true when your regression professor proves theorems in a way they’re so straightforward and innovative they’re not present in any textbook. You know it’s true when you’re machine learning professor explains and gives examples of concepts from his own previous works(projects, previous papers and articles authored by him). You know it’s true when your programming professor has his own GitHub page that has all his cryptic coding challenges and their solutions. You know it’s true to God, when all these reflect in the quality of the assignments they give you.

There are so many aspects that make NUIG a great place to learn and grow. But the academic rigor has to be put first. Without that, there wouldn’t be great research, and that wouldn’t trickle down towards better quality teaching and more inspiration for students to pursue research. It’s a vicious cycle!

Getting down to the finer details, which is where the whole story lies. The lecture halls are well laid out and varied enough in different buildings so they don’t feel like factory made. They come in all different sizes and shapes. As would be expected in any world class university, the halls are equipped to the teeth with high-tech gadgetry. Not only are the lecturers facilitated with the state-of-the-art presentation equipment, but also are the students taking down notes in the fanciest ways possible. There are the old-school folk, such as myself, with notes and color sketches. Then there are the laptop guys who type away the notes. Then there are these part-timers who record the lectures with directional mics so accurate that when played back, along with the lectures, also give a clear reproduction of all the small talk. So much so that you could pick out separate voices and tune in on what they say. There are also the techies who take pictures of lecture boards in their hybrid touch and type laptops, where they annotate and add their own notes using apple pens and what not.

You’ll soon find yourself in the middle of all this fancy technology. A single student member log-in works virtually across the 100s of PCs scattered all over the university. All of your files and documents will be securely synchronized across all of these PCs because they are all server-based and remote. What it means is that you could start your career at your own lab, then continue where you left off in another lab a mile away inside the campus. (where the tutors will be during the lab sessions)

The same campus account can be used to log you into virtually anything inside the university. Need to check your outstanding semester fees? Need to change the photograph in your ID> Need to renew your library book or place a request for a new book? Need to check your remaining weekly print quota? Need to join the juggling society? Or book a beginner class session with the rock climbing club? No problem. You could do any of the above, and more, at the convenience of a laptop and an internet connection.(Means virtually anywhere).

Speaking of clubs and societies. There are enough things to do and experience for a lifetime. So once can imagine with about 3 hours of lectures and another 6 hours for assignments, it gets really tough to choose the clubs and societies that interest you. Especially when there’s so much going on that you’ll be overwhelmed choosing what to miss.

There’s a sports club for everything from darts and archery, to the usual suspects such as football, basketball, volleyball and even ultimate Frisbee. Occasionally I regularly play badminton on Mondays and Wednesdays. (Badminton courting here 🙂) I have kayaked across the river and also played Frisbee. I played all those sports at different levels. I am a beginner in Kayaking, never having touched a paddle or a kayak in my life before. I have played a lot of recreational Frisbee in my life before and a serious player at the local badminton club back home in Chennai.

The best thing about these clubs is that they are really inclusive. No matter your background (ie. Your ethnicity, your aptitude or experience with the sport,) you’re always welcome. You’re always taught and treated well. At Badminton, there are the teams battling at different levels and you could just go and choose your partners and start right away.

There’s even beginners’ coaching that takes place every Monday. It happens at every club. These sessions are held every week for anyone to just drop by and keep taking them. At Kayaking too, where I’m a total beginner, despite attending several sessions, tutors and fellow kayakers always help me set myself up with the infinite layers of wet clothing and getting into the Kayak itself, once you’re in water. It’s an elaborate ritual of wetsuit, spreadak, life vests, helmets… Best of all the clubs are non-commitment joins. All free to join with a click and then go as many or as little number of times you wish. A no-show? No problem. A regular? And you’ll soon find yourself a part of a tight community that goes out for intravarsities to Dublin and some occasional night-outs. Very friendly. Very professional. Awesomely equipped. You could walk in with literally nothing and still be able to play almost all of the sports. Even something like Kayaking or rock-climbing because you’re all provided for.

The societies, or Socs as they are called, takes the community aspect to an entire new level. There are societies for everything and I mean everything. There are the most popular ones like the India-Soc. They’re notorious for organizing extravagant celebrations and events, and eventually winning the best society of the year award. Some are pretty obvious. People juggle at the Juggling Soc. Play video games with the Video game Soc. Rock at the rock-soc. Sing and dance at the Musical Soc. Dance at the dance soc. And then there are these. Nothing specific society, GIGSoc (Gay in Galway), Karting Soc, Misneach(Social action and political Societies), Dauntless and the Dochas. There’s a total of 82 societies to choose from and belong to. A beginner hip hop experience here.

They all represent opportunities to grow. By volunteering, performing, organizing events or just hanging out with like-minded people. There’s plenty of space to learn new things and meet new people. Personally I got an opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream of being Michael Jackson on stage. And do an individual performance in the India Soc’s Diwali celebrations of 2016.

As with any education abroad. There is an abundance of opportunities. And an abundance of freedom. As the famous Spiderman saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s really easy to get lost in the social and nightlife opportunities provided by the university. It’s also really easy to get into the company of less-motivated roommates/friends, especially when beer is so cheap and there’s a six pack waiting in the refrigerator.

On the brighter side, there are so many opportunities to collaborate and make some amazing friendships to study together, to collaborate for assignments, to sleep over and have movie nights, and potluck parties, and birthdays; especially to take a break away from the intensity of the assignments and lectures. If you do get an opportunity to study here, apart from a great education and a career to take away, it will be an eventful and intense phase of life to cherish for the rest of your life.

 

 

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A Day in the Life

Not a day goes by in my course without thinking of the assignment overdue just around the corner. It’s usually many. Once you’ve gotten that pain out of your stomach, you’re free to make any breakfast you want and get on to prepare for another exciting day at the university.

 

After the usual oats, blueberries and eggs, I try and make it on time to the first lecture usually at 10 or 11. (Which is supposed to be ‘early’ in student standards) Arrive on time and everything’s nice and peaceful. 5 or 10 minutes late(like  a fifth of the class does) and you’ll have to worry about losing continuity of the lecture, let alone losing a place next to your Greek friend, who is almost always on time.

 

There’s rarely a dull moment in lectures even in the 2 hour ones. Especially the 2 hour lectures because 1 hour classes just fly away and you have to be on the edge of your seat if it has to make any sense. One really can’t afford to slack away, take a 20 second notifications break, or a micro nap because the whole problem or derivation would be solved by then. Unfortunately the lecturers are so dexterous that they can write something on the board, while explaining it, faster than a student can take them down on paper. It couldn’t feel that fast till you tune out to daydream and a couple of seconds later, you’re desperately trying to put the pieces together while your hands are trying to copy them down as fast as they could before it’s rubbed off. But they’re all nice people, you could stop them any time and they’ll explain it to you. No question is stupid. Trust me, I’ve done it many times. They don’t assume anything. People have asked all different sorts of questions – from what is an inverse of a matrix in Advanced Probability class – to what is an access modifier in Large scale data analytics(where you’re supposed to know in advance , how to code in Java). Every time, you get a friendly, concise answer that would get you upto speed; and then some version of “Does that make sense?” to make sure you got it. You could also email them and expect a prompt reply. Or just drop into their office. All of them.

 

One really can’t appreciate the lectures enough when they’re in the middle of it. The slides and their supporting materials(like tutorials and excel sheets and java codes) are works of art that have an elegance in their minimalism. They really come to life during exam time when you don’t have enough time for textbooks, with their wordy explanations and cryptic notations. Nor can you type something on YouTube or Wikipedia and try to brood over which one of them to watch because you only have limited time). That’s when the concise and the beautifully crafted slides would come to life, covering the essence of every single topic and their explanations would start to play in your head. So it was a realization that in the digital era of the internet, you still need lectures and professors. They do add value. At least in top universities they do.

 

Whenever I’m not at home or at lectures, my time is spent at IT305. It’s an awesome lab with nearly 30 computers that are exclusively for our masters. (with rarely 10 in regular use because everyone works with their own laptops, which is kind of sad). It’s not the lab or the computers themselves that make the place awesome. It’s basically a computer lab and a lecture hall for programming modules.

 

It’s a home away from home in a sense that it’s the go-to place for most of the DAs(Data Analytics gang) who hang around there all the time. In between lectures; during assignment nights when the eerie deadline grins at us while we bash each other’s brains, trying to decide which stackoverflow code will do the magic for us.

 

During group study sessions we play tutors, trying to fill in gaps in knowledge and bring something to the table when someone is in doubt or some obscure algorithm doesn’t make sense for any of us. “To the board. Time for the markers”. During one of these sessions, I took the lead when trying to piece together a machine learning algorithm. I tried to start from scratch and oversimplified a partial differential equation trying to explain to my classmates who didn’t have calculus exposure. It so happened that they liked the way I did it and told me A couple of classmates told me they’d pay me to do this. I only realized they weren’t kidding when they actually had me grind them for a session in “Calculus for Probability”, and paid me handsomely for it. A lot of potential to make money and help people at the same time. Then there is the NUIG grinds where you could register to tutor for students who are willing to be tutored, in subjects where you think you can contribute.

 

Except for an average of three and a half hours a day of labs and lectures combined, you’re free to do whatever you want. Except you’re not. Because reading for, and doing assignments take twice as much time a day.(If you know what you’re doing, otherwise longer). You can’t blame them because that’s the only way professors can evaluate that you can actually put the knowledge into practice and make something out of it. That’s more important than just knowledge, which is why continuous assessments carry as much as 40% of the entire grade, the remaining from written exams.

 

If one can figure out how to get out of the vicious cycle of going through the entire student  life, moving from one assignment to another, which is tough, but doable, there’s always time and place for awesome things inside the university. Every Monday, 6-8 pm and Wednesday (9 -11 pm) are awesome because of badminton at the monstrous 12 court facility of the college. Every Fridays and Saturdays are awesome because of the Kayaking club’s beginner sessions. (where a magical boat like an f1 car, you sit inside and keep rowing). These are the regulars that I visit.

 

Other than that I’ve tried out ultimate frisbee, Rock climbing, Soccer and  Basketball. There’s a sports club for every sport it’s a shame that you can only select so much to play in a week owing to the schedules. When I am not doing assignments, or studying, or playing badminton, or dancing, or kayaking, or doing radio shows in my university, I like to read and watch about subjects that interest me, which are a lot: insightful and thought-provoking books like Thinking, Fast and Slow and Antifragile; scientific(especially cognitive science) documentaries of BBC, NGC, and Discovery Channel; actionable TED talks; biographies of the likes of Nikola Tesla, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson and Elon Musk.There’s also the beautiful library where I wanted to spend the majority of time, I just couldn’t. But I have the  whole semester 2 ahead of me and I will.

 

My day ends with dinner and good rest and I can’t wait to repeat all over again.

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