Despite experiencing failure and burnout frequently, students are reluctant to reach out for help. Visha Vijayanand, a former computer science student, is open and sincere about her struggles and insecurities with school. She has reached out for support in various communities—at home, school, and work. Now a third year student, Visha doesn't let the pressures of school stop her from learning and meeting new people.
For most students, the transition from high school to university is daunting. Visha was used to excelling with relative ease while participating in filmmaking and dance during high school in Southern California. In her first year of university, she had to retake the majority of her courses and give up her extracurricular activities. Throughout the ordeal, she questioned whether she belonged in the CS program.
"Every time an advisor looked at my transcript, they told me to switch programs while I could. You're only allowed six failures before you're kicked out," Visha explains.
"Brad Lushman is the realest advisor I've had. He told me to play an optimization game with my grades in order to figure out what I needed to survive the term."
This made her realize that gaining a CS degree wasn't just about programming abilities, but also the ability to write assignments and exams successfully.
Before entering university, Visha had high hopes for the CS program. Her mother, a computer engineer and fellow dancer, was her main role model. Initially, she dreamt of becoming a doctor. After researching computing programs with her mother, Visha ultimately chose the CS program at UW because of the co-op program.
There were various reasons why Visha faced difficulties in her first year. She lived in a residence with few CS students and as a result, struggled to focus on her studies. Like many new students in the Math faculty, Visha was blindsided by Math 135 (Algebra for Honours Mathematics), a course that introduced students to proof techniques and algebraic structures. She also believed that the lack of enrichment in her math education played a role in her academic performance.
"Math has never been an easy subject for me. I've always had to do extra tutoring to get As. Because of that, my math grades were high enough to get into Waterloo. I've had people tell me that if I don't have a natural affinity towards math and computer science, then it's hard to progress because the concepts become more abstract."
This observation made Visha distraught but also determined to succeed. She attended various study skills workshops and mental health support groups on campus. Despite receiving significant help from classmates with studying, she still struggled to pass exams.
"I spent so much time worrying whether I could pass courses. I noticed a pattern: every time I saw new material, I blanked out. Exposing myself to the material more often is the only way I can retain it."
Coming clean to parents about failure is incredibly difficult. Visha has been fortunate to have nurturing and supportive parents who value success beyond grades.
"All of a sudden, I'm telling my parents that I'm failing hard. Initially, they were confused and didn't know how to support me, especially given the distance between California and Ontario. There's a stereotype that immigrant parents just care about school, but mine encouraged me to dance for 13 years and pursue filmmaking throughout high school. When I was struggling, they pushed me to persevere but in a way that was empowering. They were ready to move back to Canada to support me."
A talk given by Maria Klawe, renowned computer scientist and President of Harvey Mudd College, at the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing (ONCWIC) made Visha rethink what it meant to succeed in computer science.
"Maria talked about how important introductory CS courses are. That's what keeps the people who change the world in CS. An overly competitive environment discourages people from continuing."
At UW, introductory CS courses are taught in Scheme, a functional programming language. MIT initially used Scheme as a teaching language and has since migrated to Python. The reasoning behind teaching Scheme is to level the playing field among new and experienced programmers.
"It doesn't level the playing field," says Visha, "It makes people who have never programmed before feel even more behind than people who have."
Despite having a poor transcript and being an inexperienced programmer, Visha was able to succeed and develop confidence in the co-op program. Visha was baffled that Agriculture Canada, her first employer, wanted to hire her despite having low grades.
By the end of the co-op term, she realized that employers value a person's willingness to learn more than anything else.
"Agriculture Canada saw what I could do for them. They wanted someone who was motivated to learn. People who are adamant of their current knowledge aren't teachable," Visha observes.
Although she worked with web statistics in the IT department, Visha enjoyed expanding her professional network beyond technical people. She welcomed new mentors, including a researcher named Dr. Ernest Small who studied the Moringa Oleifera, a super plant that contains anti-oxidants and life-saving nutrients. With the help of her father, she wrote a proposal to develop microeconomic Moringa Oleifera farms in India.
In her second co-op term, Visha worked as a developer for a Victoria-based startup called Sendwithus. For the interview, she had to complete a coding challenge on GitHub, which required completing an API call written in Python.
After sleuthing the GitHub repository, Visha found near complete solutions to the challenge in the revision history. She used these solutions as guides to solve the challenge and even told the engineering team of her discovery.
"They told me they were really impressed that I took the time to investigate available resources before I started coding," she recalls.
Although Visha enjoyed the technical aspects of her job, she felt isolated as the only female engineer on a small team.
"They all seemed to know what they were doing and it was intimidating. I learned how to use the Internet to help me do my job. I also had a patient mentor named Gregory Schier who gave me valuable advice on growing as a developer."
Like her experience at Agriculture Canada, Visha took advantage of her environment. She reached out to Linley Faulkner, the startup's administrative officer, for mentorship. With the help of Linley, Visha got involved in the local tech community and led workshops for Ladies Learning Code. She also delivered a talk about her work experience for the web development club at the University of Victoria.
Visha put her filmmaking talent to use when she created a company video called "What is Sendwithus". Her blog post explaining how to make a startup video went viral, making the front page of Hacker News. This experience taught her that creating a startup doesn't just mean getting a degree in computer science. It's about having an idea and working tirelessly to make it a reality.
Overall, exploring various creative outlets and expanding social and professional networks has helped Visha overcome the immense stress and anxiety of school. She also reached out to the mental health services on campus.
"I found myself trying to conform to what a CS student is supposed to be like and gave up the things I loved in order to be the proper student. It took a lot of self-reflection and a lot of late night phone calls with my parents for me to realize that I needed to leave the program."
After taking a personality test at the Centre for Career Action (CECA), Visha discovered that her extroverted personality was well-suited for careers with more human interaction.
"I want to work in the tech industry in a position that allows me to work directly with people. I switched into the Arts faculty to seek out a major that fits my interests and gives me a better chance of getting into grad school."
The most valuable lesson Visha learned in the past year, thanks to her parents, is the importance of happiness and health.
"Whatever issue that is happening or whatever is causing your stress is temporary. Write it down on a post-it note and leave it. Focus on what you need to do for tomorrow. Communicate with your loved ones, whoever they may be, constantly. Having them support you is the only thing that matters. If you don't have good health, it doesn't matter where you're working. You need to be healthy in order to have a life. University will always have rough moments and you will change in positive ways because of it. Ultimately, you need to power through it with cheerleaders and have some cookies!"
Follow Visha @lifetakesvisha!
Get to Know is a series of interviews with women in computing at the University of Waterloo. They showcase women in our community with inspiring stories. If you're interested in sharing your story or nominating someone else, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Get to Know".