Stepping onto the UT Dallas campus for freshman orientation, I had a goal: to learn all of the things I didn’t know as quickly as possible, and move on to The Next Thing.
In my mind The Next Thing was a clear, tangible achievement that would mark each step on my self-defined Path. My belief in the Path was absolute and the plan couldn’t have been more thorough. So, when asked by the fellow sitting next to me at orientation why I came to UTD, I told him about the Path. We both walked away a little alarmed, me at his lack of a master plan and he at the thoroughness of mine.
I was a newly minted high school know-it-all who believed that the list of things I didn’t know was finite. A degree from UTD would fill in the gaps nicely, I thought.
The Next Thing list included a summer internship at a technology company, which never materialized, most likely because I was a nervous wreck during interviews. Time and again, UTD gave me a chance to slowly step outside my comfort zone while still evolving academically and professionally. The Career Center connected me with a broad range of prospective employers and I spent my first break working at the University’s bursar office. I helped peers register for classes, pay their tuition and generally navigate some practically obsolete mainframe software that I made a mental note to rewrite.
Other memories: Being asked by a bookstore employee what I was doing as I copied ISBNs for textbooks for future classes, hoping to find them cheaper online. Carrying heavy computer science textbooks around in my JanSport backpack until it finally tore, spilling the contents right outside my Waterview apartment. Watching from my apartment window as the first athletic building broke ground, seeming to spring up overnight. The quick jog from the apartment to the gym. The trek to McDermott library. Passing the building where I had a physics class in a steep basement auditorium, where one time a guy fell while running to submit his final exam. The ECS building (there was just one at the time) where I went to office hours again and again until C++ pointers finally made sense.
I also remember the office I was in when I learned I had earned my first B, because that was the instant when the Path became unclear.
There was also my first fumbling attempt to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation. And the first time I had to work in a group because going solo wouldn’t fly. I learned that when the group asked me to present, they trusted me to represent them.
I remember things I wish I’d kept. The worn-out course catalog with history elective after history elective circled, a sure indicator of what has become a lifelong love of travel. The copy of 100 Years of Solitude that I read in a day without stopping to eat.
More than anything, I remember a slow but steady understanding that I was learning beyond what I needed to simply earn a degree.
Fifteen years later, the thought of that overconfident young man makes me laugh. The need to draw a box around what I didn’t know makes sense but ultimately would have ensured that I missed the forest for the trees. The Path feels like a grossly oversimplified notion. What still surprises me, though — the thing I came to know — is the role that UTD would play beyond just being The Next Thing.
I don’t remember classes or grades or exams. Instead I recall a montage of random scenes that on their own are of small significance, like the fluttering of butterfly wings that trigger large changes. Whether this is the common experience of all alumni or if it is just my own, I can’t say. But every reminisced moment is more deeply etched and more meaningful. There are lifelong lessons I carry from that campus that would be nonsensical to anyone else. It’s as if UTD created those memories just for me.
The Path and the series of Next Things I had conjured up all seem ill-thought through now, like an attempt to decide the destination without enjoying the journey. If I remember correctly, it was supposed to be orientation, then internship, then degree, then job (then taxes, then death); I skipped the internship altogether and seem to be stuck in a loop with the taxes. The degree was critical; it was what would tell people I was qualified for the job. I think some still view it that way, but to me it’s proof that I spent time thinking critically, communicating effectively, building relationships and solving problems.
Now, whenever I meet someone new and we chat, I don’t overwhelm them with my master plan (not that there isn’t one), like I did with that poor freshman years ago. I tell them I think critically, communicate effectively, build relationships and solve problems. Oh, but is that what you went to school to learn? Is that why you went to UTD? Yes, I say, smiling as the montage plays in my head. I say it with the conviction of a person who almost believes it, like a thing they know they knew. Yes, I tell them, that’s exactly why I went to UTD.
Source | UT Dallas News Center
About the UT Dallas Computer Science Department
The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 1,600 bachelor’s-degree students, more than 1,100 master’s students, 160 PhD students, and 80 faculty members, as of Fall 2015. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.