Reflecting on my Lower Division Undergraduate Computer Science Studies

In the spring of 2014 I decided to leave my life as a touring musician and food service worker behind to embark on a journey towards greener pastures and decided to enroll in college to get a Computer Science (CS) degree. Studying CS was something I wanted to do while in high school. However, life took me in different directions. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs I spent my 20’s touring the world with bands and making ends meet by standing in various kitchens which often resembled Mordor.

I have loved computers and technology since I was able to use them, and embarking on a CS degree seemed like a reasonable risk for me to take. I’m writing this blog to reflect on my studies. In one day I will walk across a stage to receive my associates in science from a Portland Community College before beginning my upper division course work at Portland State University to earn my bachelors in CS. It’s amazing how my mind has changed in two years. My world views have changed dramatically, and I can map my thoughts into computer code with a certain degree of confidence. Additionally, I can read, write, and use algebra, calculus, and trigonometry confidently. Another important life change which happened during my time at PCC is getting a part time job in the IT department doing technician work. I set a goal that I would be working in the tech industry before I finished my associate’s degree, and successfully meet that goal. I have to give credit to the staff and instructors at PCC for creating an environment where ambitious students can thrive. Overall my experience in college has been a net positive, as long as I don’t think about the mountains of debt I’ve accrued.

Before returning to school read dozens of blogs, and studied statistics about both the academic and commercial side of CS as a discipline. Much of the figures and lore have shown themselves to be relevant, if not completely true. The unchecked positivity and optimism in the beginning of this blog do not come without their negative and cynical counter parts. It would be unfair to not highlight some aspects of my education which were not happy fun times.

One major sacrifice I had to make was pet projects and creative thinking. Once I started taking CS, Math and Physics courses in one term I almost lost control of my coursework because I wanted to hack on my personal projects. I had to be brutally honest with myself, and put the brakes on personal projects. Side reading was another thing I had to give up. My ‘read later’ bookmarks folder looks like an academic reference database. Overwhelming and vast in scale. The truth is that a dense STEM workload means you need to focus on learning and absorbing the material assigned, and put self-driven creativity on hold. In a way that has been good, because now I have a better skill set and more ideas than ever before.

colgrad01

Another sobering thing to witness is the process of weeding out which happens in CS degrees. I’ve seen math classes go from 50 people to less than ten by finals week, the same pattern was be observed in core CS classes. The problem with seeing this happen is the worry that somewhere down the road it will be you who gets purged. Sometimes I ask myself, is there a course coming up that will break my academic spirit? I always tell myself no, but regardless the rate at which students are leaving CS programs is daunting, especially in the 200 level classes. The stern, and cynically toned blogs and articles which state that a CS degree is not for everyone hold some truth right. It’s easy to spot those who signed up for CS because they noticed the money is good. They are perpetually unhappy and ultimately leave the program. This degree requires one to have passion and drive.

I’m only taking two classes this summer, so the goal is to finally get around to doing some personal projects. I’m not setting any publishing quotas for this blog. I tried that, and felt nothing but guilt when I failed to meet the quotas. Happy coding, learning and exploring.

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