COGS Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Elbaggari

B.A. Language, ’20
Game Developer and HCI Researcher

Why did you choose Cognitive Systems as your focus in your degree at UBC?

I declared COGS as my major before you had to apply to get into the program. I was in second year at the time and really trying to navigate where I wanted my undergraduate experience to lay. I always found my interests on the boundary of art, language, and technology, so naturally COGS fit within that space. Actually, as I was talking with my Arts advisor about majors and they suggested I take some time to browse the courses on SSC and before I knew it I was in COGS 200 and had declared COGS as my major. Needless to say, I didn’t define my COGS stream in the beginning, but with all of the required classes on my worklist, I was able to kind of figure out where I wanted to declare after taking a myriad of intro courses. I truly feel like declaring COGS Language was a great decision for my interest areas. With the flexibility of the module courses in COGS I was also able to feel the freedom to explore the other areas of computer science, psychology, and philosophy that I was interested in.

How much of the career path that you are in now was planned in your time as an undergrad? Is it the career that you had envisioned? What would you advise students that are uncertain about their path and overwhelmed by so many different career possibilities?

I would say much of my career path wasn’t as planned as I would have hoped it would be during undergrad. As many COGS students may feel, the degree doesn’t really provide a one path solution to what you can do and where you can go next. Having a lot of options in front of you like that can be daunting, which I definitely felt.

Currently I am wrapping up my Master’s in Computer Science at UBC, which is nowhere near where I thought I would end up. How I got here was a combination of making connections through research opportunities in my undergrad and graduating at an unfortunate time (COVID times just set in)… Interestingly enough, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for me to get to where I am now. Maintaining relationships with my supervisors, professors, and COGS peers helped motivate me academically. After having a few far along interviews fall through during the hiring halt, I reached back out to some of my mentors I had throughout undergrad to ask what to do. Candice, our beloved COGS advisor, recommended so many resources and people to talk to. Karon Maclean, my 402 and current supervisor, also gave insights to what academia may be like during this time. Both of their guidance, along with a lot of open talking with peers and slight existential searching paved the way for me to make the decision to go back to school.

My Master’s has been one of the best decisions I have made in my career for more reasons than I can count. And if pursuing another degree was the best career decision I have made, COGS really set the foundation for my success in my academic efforts.

Planning during undergrad can feel a bit loose and not quite straight forward for some, like it was for me. I think that what really helps make this an enjoyable time is remaining open to opportunity, taking a chance on yourself, and continually communicating with folx around you.

I believe the most important action that someone needs to take to build their career is _________.

Having kind of answered this in the above question, it would be taking that chance on yourself. You’re your own worst critic sometimes and I truly believe that is what has held me back in the past. I find I had to receive external validation to feel that in myself, but have slowly been dragging myself out of that head space to accept that I am capable of much more that my own limits I set for myself. Yes, knowing your skill set and communicating it to others is a part of this, but so is having the confidence to see how skilled and unique you are.

What advice would you give to your first-year self?

Hi little Hannah, you’re new to UBC and that’s scary. Here’s some advice from future me:

  1. Stop taking things so seriously. You’re over prioritizing things like exam marks, grades, even personal relationships. You’ll have more fun if you just enjoy the course content, have some life outside of school – I promise the marks will follow.
  2. Profs are people too, approach them and chat like a regular person!
  3. Keep doing the class friends thing because that will help you get through some ups and downs BUT stop comparing yourself to them………. *shakes finger at self*
  4. Research is fun. Did you know you can do that alongside some of your school work?
  5. Did you like the class you just took? TA for it next term!
  6. You’re thinking pretty far into the future and defining success through someone else’s lens. What does success look like to you personally? You’ll be happier if you figure out what this is before you start making future career plans.