Campus involvement helped Waterloo computer science graduate find 'stable outlook on life'

Adjustment to being a computer science student at University of Waterloo was challenging for Alexander Mistakidis and led him to seek counselling. Before then, he found comfort in the interactions with his residence student leader.

'I felt very lonely,' class of 2017 entrepreneur recalls difficult start

Alexander Mistakidis, CEO of a Waterloo-based startup, said adjusting to being a university student at University of Waterloo was challenging. (Courtesy of Alexander Mistakidis)

Alexander Mistakidis left Windsor when he was 17 for the University of Waterloo to study computer science — where he went onto fail courses and struggle with his mental health.

Being alone in a new city was tough without friends and family, and he wasn't prepared for the increased difficulty of university courses. 

"I had to really accept the fact that I might have to go and review multiplying fractions when we're doing some stuff that's super advanced compared to that," Mistakidis told CBC News.

"I felt very lonely because I didn't really have anyone and I had to kind of start from square one."

The stress and problems with depression and anxiety led him to seek counselling on campus. But before then, he got help from a place he didn't think he would.

"The don who I was living in residence with just kind of checked in with me when I didn't think anybody knew anything was up, and that meant a lot to me," he said.

Peer-to-peer support network

Dons are students who live in residence and take on a leadership role in facilitating residence communities. Glen Weppler, director of housing at the university, describes them as "resource and referral agents."

They are selected through an application process, then trained before they begin each academic term by the university and some external organizations.

From learning about different student types on campus, to learning how to communicate with them, dons work closely with students by giving them support or referring them to resources.

Weppler said this type of "peer-to-peer support" model is widely used across universities in North America.

Gaining perspective

For Mistakidis, his don's "small gesture" showed him the importance of community. It took him several tries, but he was finally accepted to become a don for the September 2013 school term.

He found the experience so enjoyable that he ended up returning as a don over the next three years. Having responsibilities outside of school work helped him gain "a more stable outlook on life," Mistakidis said.

Speaking to students over the years also gave him "a lot of perspective," he said. "I think for a lot of us, we're stuck in our own heads with our kind of struggles."

"I don't know if I made a fundamental change in saving someone's life," he said. "I definitely had some difficult conversations with people who were going through hopeless times."

Aside from dons, students living in residence have a number of other contacts to choose from, such as 24/7 front desk staff to cleaning staff. Weppler said there's a network of support.

"There could be some great teachable moments where it makes more sense for a full-time staff member who has more time to dedicate to students to help them navigate," said Weppler.

Mistakidis graduated in 2017, after spending six years finishing his undergraduate degree in computer science. (Courtesy of Alexander Mistakidis)

Finding success outside of academia

Mistakidis now runs a startup competitive mobile gaming company called Gamelynx with his two partners, with offices in Waterloo and Los Angeles.

It took him six years to finish what would normally be a five-year undergraduate degree, including co-op job terms. He failed some classes and took a reduced course load to focus on being a don and starting his business.

While his computer science program didn't have class rankings like some engineering programs, the competition was still alive in the classrooms with people aiming for top grades to help with things like scholarships.

"I couldn't even really begin to compete within the realm of a class ranking or whatever, I just wanted to pass," he said.

It took him two to three years before he realized his strengths weren't in academia.

"When I accepted that and got involved on campus, and had other things that made me proud, and feel like I was unique … and competent in my own way" he said, "That was when I started liking school."

About the Author

Flora Pan

Reporter/Editor

Flora Pan is a multimedia journalist based in southern Ontario. She currently works out of Windsor. You can reach her at flora.pan@cbc.ca or on Twitter @FloraTPan.