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The world of computer science is daunting. It’s incredibly fast-paced and innovative, stocked with plenty of brilliant minds pushing to refine code and produce the best technological output possible. We hear about Bitcoin, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, among thousands of other buzzwords. We don’t often get a bigger picture of the compassion, creativity and collaboration that is seen in this world — something I have gained from my experience in the computer science department at UNC.

I’m not going to pretend like negative stereotypes of CS and other STEM subjects haven’t sometimes rung true for me. I have been offered a “dumbing down” of topics for my own understanding, been viewed as less competent due to my interest in other subjects, felt overlooked or interrupted in interviews, been the sole minority in a classroom, spent countless hours missing sleep to finish coding assignments and felt too stupid to ask questions in a classroom.

I have felt challenged by some of my experiences as a computer science major and I am certain there are many others in the field that could relate to them. However, they are not entirely reflective of the tech world’s progress and evolutionary qualities for different communities, including at UNC.

My overall experience has been a mosaic of different support systems. From the COMP 110 undergraduate teaching assistant who persuaded me to stay in my first ever programming class, to the kind professor who first taught me to code and later hired me on his teaching assistant team, to my COMP 110 coworkers and peers who have taken the time to explain problem sets and encourage me to refrain from dwelling in imposter syndrome, I have discovered a network of friends and mentors who, to put it simply, have my back.

These are all people who set an example for how knowledge can be shared and mobilized as a tool to help others. They exist, and they taught me the importance of maintaining grace in an academic and professional environment that is extremely rigorous, fosters competition and pushes for success. They have highlighted the importance of using different minds, identities and backgrounds to collaborate on different assignments, including both the ones I complete for a class and those I have the privilege to teach to other students who struggle in the same introductory class I thought I would fail out of — and almost dropped — my freshman year.  

It's worth noting that my experience has relied primarily on the connections I made taking these courses and working with a big team of incredibly talented and joyous fellow undergraduate teaching assistants for COMP 110. But the CS friends I have gained from taking additional courses, the other TAs who worked overtime to explain confusing concepts to me, the professors who opened their office hours to facilitate direct questions — they have all impacted my perspective of a subject that once seemed too quantitative and abstract for a girl who thought she hated math. 

Computer science is powerfully fascinating. The more I explore it, the more I realize that it is incredibly interdisciplinary and can be paired with so many other interests — like my passion for public policy — to help others.

No matter how difficult courses or grading scales are or how limited enrollment seats might be, computer science at UNC does not have to be a space of isolation. It’s a community of eager learners who like to sit together in the Sitterson lobby and talk about their lives and their code (occasionally they’re the same thing). It's a pack of friends who take notes for each other during 8 a.m. classes, who build study guides together, who teach others binary trees before the next exam, who build each other up regarding their aspirations and who share the free food that accompanies various recruiting or speaking events in the department building.

No matter our major, it’s important to reflect on the people that have lifted us up during our learning experiences. There are so many of those people for me in every subject I’ve learned, but most crucially in the subject and field I once thought was out of my reach.