Advice to freshman self from GHC 2012

by Fiona Tay

Fiona Tay

Fiona Tay

I’d like to share an excerpt of an essay I wrote in freshman year:


I was nearly in tears. It was just after 7.00 pm, on the first Thursday after winter break, and I was sitting in the college computer lab, staring at the computer monitor and on the verge of breaking down. I wasn’t beaten down by relationship issues or homesickness, but because of our Scheme homework assignment. No matter what I tried, the dreaded words ‘SYNTAX ERROR’ kept popping up. The compiler simply refused to run my program.

Sitting in the computer lab, I started blaming myself for not starting the homework earlier. Where was the student tutor? According to the schedule, he was supposed to be there 15 minutes ago: ”Aaron Gable: 7.00 – 9.00 pm”. I dashed off an email to Aaron and continued working on my project, searching online Scheme libraries and re-reading the course notes. Although the room was filled with people, I didn’t know any of the people and I felt like I couldn’t ask anyone for help.

Just as I was about to leave, a tall, brown-haired guy came up behind me. “Are you Fiona? I’m Aaron. I just got your email.” The professors had mistakenly told Aaron that no one would need help that night, so he only came when he saw my email. That night Aaron patiently talked me through the homework, not only helping me with programming errors, but also reassuring me that I would survive CS 60.


At the low point in my college career, I had considered giving up, just because of a homework assignment. Reading over what I wrote in 2009, I want so much to go back to my younger self and give her advice. ‘Don’t you know you could’ve asked pretty much any person in the lab for help? One in 2 people at Harvey Mudd has taken CS 60!’ 2012 Fiona feels lucky that Aaron was around to give me a hand up, but 2012 Fiona also knows she could have also reached out to other students or professors instead. She knows that the 2009 Fiona had skills and perseverance and would have found a way.

I was able to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration as a student, but attending the conference this year feels different. The conference is bigger, and more companies are here. But mostly, I think it’s different because I’ve grown. In Baltimore this year, I met many younger students from Harvey Mudd, which reminded me of how far I’ve come. In just a short time, I’ve graduated, work at a competitive consulting company, and have become a mentor and a role model to other women in computing.

This year, I’m particularly ecstatic to be at Grace Hopper and reach out to younger students. I have a wonderful job as a web developer, and I’m going to be recruiting more women for my company. But also, I’m getting to play more of a mentoring role with my Birds of a Feather session. I’m running a workshop for students to plan women in computer science activities at their schools.

If you are reading this as a younger student, I hope you won’t ever feel overwhelmed like I did. But if you do, realize that everyone feels that way sometimes, and that lots of people want to help you out. Hundreds of other technical women and I are volunteering for the WitsOn mentoring program. There are longer term mentoring programs like Mentornet.org and group support from places like Systers. You can also reach out to professors, alumni, or older students at your university. Remember, there are resources available.

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