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Learning to Love Computer Science

I’ve always been interested in computer science. When I was five, I saw my father setting up our dial-up internet access for the computer, and I was hooked instantly by the action…

Cut the crap, okay? No one is really like that!

When I read examples of personal statements for college, I was convinced that everyone has a great background story behind why they chose their major, and I was just an outsider. I had no big story on why I chose to major in computer science. I just chose it through the process of elimination.

I am a person with a lot of interests that change from time to time, and whenever I have that interest, I tend to dive deep down into it. I remember in 7th grade I was obsessed with the swinging Sixties and the British pop culture invasion—particularly, its music scene—and I bought 7 biographical/autobiographical books written of/by icons of the era, from Keith Richards to Pattie Boyd. I dreamt of someday becoming a lead guitarist of a rock band, touring from city to city. (I cringed when I typed that line, but in my defense, I was 12.) Yet when I reached my 13th birthday, I left that obsession behind, leaving the books unread and the electric guitar listed on Craigslist. Growing up, I went through interest after interest—some of them kept and some of them abandoned—from baking and photography to filmmaking and coffee-tasting. I was thinking of a range of majors too, including visual communications design, film studies, and food technology. However, as I grew up, I need to start thinking about the practicality of these majors. Only a handful of these won the approval of my parents.

I had to resort to the process of elimination. I wanted a major that my parents would approve, is a potential career path, I enjoy doing, and I’m good at. Also, I don’t want to waste the fact that I am on a natural science track in high school. It has to be something related to biology, chemistry, physics, or math. I loathed biology, I’m okay with chemistry and math, and I love physics. So I stuck to what my dad majored in: chemical engineering.

When I decided on the major, my dad took me to Cilegon, a city 80 miles from Jakarta. Cilegon is a center for factories, including those remotely related to chemistry. “This is what your day-to-day will be like,” he said. I was initially surprised since this is definitely not where I see myself working in the future. But I persisted since I didn’t know what else to major in that would win my parents’ approval. (I didn’t even think of computer science.)

Everything changed when I flunked my chemistry final. I remember leaving the exam room thinking, “Ugh, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.” So I had to go back to the process of elimination and erase chemistry from the equation. I am left with physics and math. At this point, I was probably going to major in mechanical engineering, mathematics, computer science, or physics. I don’t want too much physics or too much math. I don’t want to work in a factory. That leaves me with computer science. Okay, so I did a programming class one semester in middle school. I was semi-regularly involved in robotics in high school, and I kinda like it. It’s just I don’t have enough exposure to computer science to determine whether it’s the right major for me. Its work prospects are glowing. It’s a continually evolving field. Also, there’s a nice social justice ring to it, since I’m a woman in a notoriously male-dominated industry. Hmm. You know what? I’ll take it.

I went into community college studying computer science. I had a few doubts, though, since the major was chosen in a rush while I was counting down to my high school graduation. I know people from my school who chose to major in CS and did hackathons, internships in startups, and developed personal programming projects. Me? The only programming languages I knew were (faintly) BASIC and (faintly) Arduino. (If I were writing this back then I would write HTML as a programming language I knew. That’s how much of a newbie I was. Well, at least I knew a fair amount of HTML.)

And because of my doubts, I hung on to declare a second major that was based on my current interest of that time, which is theatre. This was a very short-lived interest, and I realized that I didn’t really like theatre, but I just love the sense of community out of it. There’s a lot that I got from that interest, though, like how my favorite word in the English language—catharsis—is derived from a Greek theatre term, and the fact that I know who Bertolt Brecht is. Anyway, during my first year, I only took an introductory computer science class, so I didn’t really feel the zhuzh of training to be a computer scientist. I took a bunch of math classes; intensely enough that I even considered switching my major to mathematics. I ended up staying, though; however, I still didn’t find the appeal of the computer science major.

Sophomore year came in a flash. During the summer, I ditched my theatre major and realized that writing is the one interest that has stayed with me all along. However, my parents would freak out if I decided to change my first major to creative writing. It’s also too late by this point. Oh well. I stayed with my computer science major, but I switched my second major to English. Or creative writing.

Another thing: since I was in community college, sophomore year is the time where I have to apply to four-year institutions to transfer. I have to make a compelling argument on why I am majoring in computer science and English. Starting from the fall, I worked at my college’s Writing Center at that time, where I was introduced to academic writing pedagogy and how it relates to linguistics, and I really liked it. So I Googled the intersections between linguistics and computer science. Then I found the world of natural language processing: basically, how computers process language. Yes! YES! This is a win! Just like that, after six months of majoring in English, I changed my major combination to CS and a minor in linguistics. A simple 5-minute Google search jumpstarted a compelling argument on why I chose to major in computer science. But I was just stalling at that point: I know the answer I can give to college recruiters, but I don’t know the answer I can give to myself. Why am I majoring in computer science?

The first real appeal of the world of computer science to me is when I took my first real CS class in my second year: data structures in Java. I experience my first intense, multi-file programming project in that class. I enjoyed it a whole lot, and I was pretty good at it compared to the other subjects I was taking. I had no hassle explaining concepts to my friend and I really enjoyed my late nights in the library, chugging indescribable amounts of shitty cafeteria coffee, figuring out how to debug my code. Wow, I guess I finally found that spark, I thought. But I still clung on to my linguistics minor just in case I lose interest in computer science.

Now, I am in my third year of university, and I just came out from my linguistics midterm. I flunked. So bad. I think I’ve lost 15 points by now, and I feel bad about it. I’m starting to feel like linguistics is just something I like in a popular science kind of way and the more I dive into the subject, the more I lose my interest in it, like history or psychology. I was taken back to my chemistry exam I flunked. However, my disinterest in linguistics is just a preliminary evaluation. It’s only my intro class anyway.

On the other hand, I am taking Advanced Programming (my professor co-wrote a CS pedagogy paper based on it, check it out), a rigorous programming class known to be some sort of a weeder class. People have been saying that you will know whether you’re a “true” computer scientist or not based on this class. Contrary to what I expected when I registered, I freaking LOVE this class; I used my brain in depths of logic I never knew I could reach and however badly I flunked my midterm or my programming assignment, I am interested to know what I did wrong and what can I do to improve my grades.

So, the two big questions I have now are: should I ditch my second major/minor entirely and stick with computer science? And, am I a real computer science student?

I still have my doubts. I am far behind from the people who joined hackathons, interned at startups, and did personal programming projects. I always program for school; I never program for fun. However, I found the fun in programming through the assignments I do for school. Does this make me a lesser CS major? I’m still not sure about it. Am I ready to ditch my “comfort” minor and say that I want to work with computers for the rest of my life? I don’t know, to be honest. I still don’t know what I’ll do after I graduate (grad CS? grad journalism? succumbing to the corporate slavery of a large tech company? commit to the uncertain abyss of a startup?) but I’m sticking with my major for now.

I’m learning to love computer science. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m still learning, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve always been interested in computer science, like how those generic personal statements start.

About the author patriciaksmngtys

Patricia K. is an Indonesian computer science student based in New York. When she's not busy manipulating data structures, you can find her watching movies or talking about them.

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