James Ropotar is in his first-year at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering. The Schulich Scholar started his journey to become a professional engineer in September 2020 (actually he started last year as a Dual Credit student with School District 23). James just wrapped up his first official midterm season, the School of Engineering checked in to see how he is doing.
What drew you to engineering? And to UBC Okanagan?
My whole life I’ve loved to build and create things. Playing with model trains, Lego, and later Minecraft were all major passions of mine. I loved to create machines, find a way to make my trains climb steps – anything I could dream up, I’ve always enjoyed finding a way to create.
Innovation runs through me too. I’ve always wanted to change the world. All of this brought me to choose being an engineer, to best achieve my goals of change in the world. As for the beautiful Okanagan campus, I chose it after doing the engineering dual credit program here. The professors are amazing, and the campus overall had an atmosphere of growth, which really drew me towards it. I felt it would be a good choice for me to be able to learn, and then later get hands on lab experience as part of my learning journey.
What has been the impact thus far of being a Schulich Scholar?
One of the biggest impacts has been the network of people it has connected me to. I have access to bounce ideas and get help from tons of the top young minds right now. It helps me build ideas and learn new things through these connections. Beyond that, the financial impact has also been great. I haven’t had to worry about financing, which has allowed me to focus on school, allowing me to keep on top of everything that comes at me with it. I’m not distracted by working a job any more than I want to be.
What have been your initial impressions of engineering at UBC Okanagan?
It’s difficult to say with this distanced education right now. At the moment its harder for everyone, but the dedication of some professors amazes me. Having done the dual credit, I know everything will be better back in person, but still seeing how hard the different professors work is amazing. Real shout out to Dr. Shirazi here, he is probably the best instructors for first year engineering right now. The effort he puts in to make sure students understand the concepts is great. Apart from that, everything I’ve gone through so far makes me excited to finally go back to campus when the time comes.
Describe your term so far. What was it like? High points? Challenges?
So far the term has been interesting to say the least. I think the biggest challenge is having to work at home, especially for me. Currently, as I go through my daily lectures, the sound of drills and saws blast behind me as my home is being renovated. Other than that, it has flowed more smoothly than I expected. At the start there was some disorganization with all the classes, but within a couple weeks I built a flow. The first hurdle was figuring out which classes were fully asynchronous, which ones I could make fully asynchronous, and which ones I had to attend. Once I had that, I was able to build myself a schedule that could balance my time between classes as needed. This is probably where the biggest challenge for most is. I, however, have always felt fine doing self-directed learning, so I definitely have a step above many of my peers.
My greatest high point has probably been between my group English project, or my statics midterm. For my English project, I wrote a short story and animated it, and it seemed the whole class really enjoyed it. I loved creating it, and have shared it around quite a bit to positive response. As for my statics exam, my score is a major achievement for me. Despite numerous technical difficulties on the exam, I still managed to come out nearly acing it, which felt really good. Statics is one of the hardest first-year engineering courses, and to get that score was just amazing.
Having participated in Dual Credit, how has that impacted your transition to university?
It made it 1000 times easier for sure. I had already been exposed to university workloads, and the expectations that go with them. Just having that basic understanding of how things work, and the expectations inherent in the program made it all a whole lot easier. I have been able to better spend my time, balancing it between what I know I’ll need to work on. I highly recommend it to anyone considering engineering, as if nothing else, it takes one of the most work-intensive courses out of first year.
Favourite courses and instructors in so far?
Linear Algebra taught by Dr. Shirazi has to be my favourite by far. He is such an amazing instructor, and is what any teacher should aim to be. He dynamically tunes any live lessons to how he feels the students are doing. He watches the reactions of all students who have their cameras on to see if he needs to explain a concept more. He has an open-door policy to his office hours, always being available for students. It is just amazing how great his instruction is, and how that makes the concepts he explains so much easier. From what I can tell, linear algebra is not normally an easy class. But thanks to him, I can solve Linear Algebra problems my friends have at different universities way faster than them. He has made this course into my favourite.
What specialization are you leaning towards at this point, what were your determining factors?
At this point I still feel very unsure. I think mechanical, as it seems to be the middle of the road for engineering. It will provide me a good base for later further specialization as a post-grad. Choosing a specialization though will be hard for me. I have a passion to learn everything there is, and take as many classes as possible. This is why I hope to take further specialization options beyond just my main field of mechanical engineering, but even that will be a series of trade offs. In truth, my biggest determining factor for specialization is based on whatever project I have in mind at that moment. Years ago when I explored Kelowna’s flooding, and collaborated with faculty at UBC Okanagan in hydrology science fair project, I thought civil engineering might be interesting. Lately, I’ve been working more on vehicle systems, which is moving me more towards mechanical. Overall, my specialization choice will probably be based on whatever big idea I have on my mind in the end.
What’s been your experience overall since the start of the pandemic?
It’s had its ups and downs. When school first went online, I was frustrated, and decided to focus on my job at Starbucks primarily. During that time, I reflected a lot on what I wanted to do with myself, and a lot of the issues society was facing. It definitely motivated me to get a job where I am doing more with my time than mindlessly making drinks. When I got word of the scholarship I had won, I cut back the amount I was working, and began to focus more on myself, and what I was going to do. Social isolation began to hit hard, which I had not thought would occur. Yet throughout this, I have carried on. I became a lot more active socially online, and began many different projects through which I seek to express myself.
The pandemic has led me to evaluate my goals, where I want to be, and what I want to do. It caused many major changes in my life, but I have definitely grown from it.
What do the next few years look like for you?
They will probably be busy! For my next term I’m going to lay back a bit, and only take five courses instead of the six normal to engineering. I’ve already taken two of the courses for the second term, so I figured I’d take an elective and rest a bit. Next summer, I’m hoping to start an internship and begin to gather actual engineering experience, or at least see it get done. I hope to continue to develop my own projects, and eventually launch a startup by the time I’m finished my degree.
What are some of your goals once you complete your undergrad?
A major one is to create my own startup, based around some product designed by me. This could be the speed limiter I’ve worked on, or something new I come up with while going through my degree. Beyond that, I plan on doing a Master’s degree to further specialize in some form of engineering. Whether I get a PhD beyond that really depends on whether I see myself following the family line of being a teacher or not. Ultimately, my goal will be to change the world in some way, as naïve as that sounds. Whether its training further engineers, or spending time being an innovator for a while first, I want to make a positive impact on the lives of others.