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My CS Story: How I learned my Path Wasn’t Set

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I used to think Stanford’s computer science major and its classes were untouchable. My high school’s coding classes seemed to be filled with those who had already built apps, animated short films, or were just general geniuses (or at least were filled with those more comfortable boasting about it). Also, it felt like my high school friends and I were prematurely siloed into distinct disciplines based on which subjects we excelled in. It felt too late to explore anything else, particularly the black box that was coding. And that was just my tiny high school! I assumed that Stanford must have summoned the programming elites – surely the university wouldn’t have time to teach a lousy freshman from scratch whose computer acumen was limited to naming a Google doc. Don’t worry though – that’s certainly not the case. 

I arrived at Stanford determined to study chemistry, and unwilling to deviate both because of a love of the subject, but also a fear of “falling behind” in whatever course of study I chose. However, I soon realized that I would have to eventually take CS 106A – a requirement for the chem major. I decided to get it “out of the way” in my freshman winter quarter. It, instead, unveiled a passion for the problem-solving, interdisciplinary thinking, and determination that the class, and programming in general, required. In the following quarter, I surprised myself by continuing with CS 106B. It demystified what it meant to code while completely changing the way I approach problems. I found myself developing new study strategies, becoming more disciplined when checking over my work, and gaining an appreciation for how engineering can be the hyphen between solutions that address a plethora of problems. CS 106B also made me realize that a major like materials science and engineering, where I could tackle more varied problems with a much more diverse toolkit, might be more rewarding.

However, it was the single hardest class of my life – it felt like a full-time job, and I was worried about exploring computer science further. But I reflected on how fulfilled and proud of myself I felt after taking 106B (and even getting a section leading position!), and after getting some other major requirements done, decided to take CS 107. At the start, I not only found it easier than 106B – it became my favorite course. 

Then the midterm… I have never received a lower score in my life – I was humiliated. The cloud that previously enshrouded the computer science discipline returned and I couldn’t see any other way out of the fog besides dropping the class. I knew that I couldn’t succeed in this field – I had only just started! I began to spiral, but after discussing my dilemma with some friends, they recommended I talk with my professor to get some advice on how to improve my studying and to get a feel of my place in the class. It was an amazing decision and wonderful advice; he was willing to meet one-on-one (even in a 300+ person class) and was incredibly reassuring. He noted that assignments contribute most to the grade anyways and said that I’ve been succeeding in those, participating in lectures, etc, so I should be okay. My hope returned, and I continued to toil away (but a very positive, gratifying toiling) on the remaining assignments. I tried out some new study strategies and ended up doing much better on the final, securing a good grade in the class. 

Both 106B and 107 taught me that Stanford provides every student, no matter their experience, an opportunity to experiment with and explore computer science, or any other major. The professors in this field are typically incredibly accommodating and are rooting for your success. I learned to never be afraid to reach out to a professor for a check-in, no matter the size of the class. And most importantly, I discovered the value in embracing the discomfort of not settling into a major too early if something else piques my interest. I’m now taking classes in both materials science and computer science, and considering switching to a computer science major (or potentially a coterm)!

I tell this story (massively paraphrased, of course) to my 106A/106B sectionees on the first day of section to demystify subsequent computer science classes. And this story doesn’t just apply to computer science – other courses at Stanford that seem inaccessible are typically approachable and have amazing support systems. I highly encourage each student to abandon their perceptions of “falling behind” in majors while pushing themselves in every new class and getting to know the teaching team in each. It has led to a much more fulfilling experience in my academic life and beyond!

Kate Elizabeth Stanton Baker, Class of 2025

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