CSpotlight: Coming home to computer science

After spending her first semester out of state, B.A. student Jacynda Alatoma realized she missed her home state. She transferred to the U of M to study statistics and soon discovered that computer science was the perfect complementary double major. Now with her specific interests in data science, software engineering, and cybersecurity, she is well-positioned to drive innovation after graduating.

Why did you choose to study specifically at the University of Minnesota?

As a high school student in the Twin Cities, I took classes through the U of M’s College in the Schools (CIS) program, and also spent time on campus with friends who were enrolled full-time. After graduating high school in 2019, I initially decided to go to college out of state.

After one semester, I realized how much I missed Minnesota and the U of M. I transferred here for the spring semester of my freshman year. How could I resist the prestigious computer science program, the extensive career network, and the location, which is practically in my backyard?

How did you become interested in computer science?

I started my undergraduate career majoring in statistics, but when I took a computer science course as part of the major curriculum, I really enjoyed it. I’ve always liked puzzles, so the problem-solving aspect of programming is interesting to me.

When I looked into computer science further, I realized how many opportunities there are in the field. The field is rapidly expanding, and in today’s world, it’s applicable to every industry. Opportunities are opening up in every field for data scientists, developers, and architects. With a computer science degree, I know I’ll be able to work for an organization I’m passionate about.

What made you decide to become a TA? How has being a TA helped you in your academic progress?

When I study for exams, I pretend I’m teaching the material to somebody else because it helps me understand the material better. After doing this for my first two years of college, I realized I enjoyed it enough to do it as a job!

I’m working as a TA for STAT 3011 this semester, and I love it! I enjoy helping people understand complex concepts, and I’ve found that it helps me retain fundamental concepts from the class that I still apply in my upper-level major courses. I’m planning to apply to be a TA next semester too—this time, in the computer science department!

Tell us more about your specific interests in data science, software engineering, and cybersecurity?

Data and information are at the core of everything we do. Data science is one of the most rapidly expanding fields in tech today, and with the rise of big data, it’s opening up opportunities in each of these areas. Data scientists organize and make sense of unstructured data. Cybersecurity specialists deal with protecting it. None of this can be done without software, which is developed, implemented, and maintained by software engineers.

I’m interested in exploring the interactions between all of these functions, and I plan to take specialized elective courses offered by the computer science department to learn more about each one of them, while pursuing another degree in statistics to familiarize myself with quantitative data itself.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

In computer science, you’re going to encounter challenges. There might be a bug in your code that you can’t seem to fix, you might feel like you’re falling behind other people in your classes, or you might struggle on an exam or two. Don’t let this discourage you! Although it will take a lot of work, computer science is an incredibly rewarding field of study. When you pass that final test and your code runs with no errors, there’s really no greater feeling.

Also, it will get easier. Once you get used to the fundamentals, you’ll develop strategies to tackle problems head-on and figure things out more quickly. Don’t be afraid to fail—the great thing about computer science is that failing is encouraged! You won’t know there’s a problem in your code until you run it. We’ve all been told from a young age to learn from our mistakes, but there’s really no field where that idiom is more applicable than computer science.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduating, I’d like to pursue a master’s degree in data science and then enter the workforce! I’m interested in potentially working for a large retail or tech corporation, but the great thing about computer science degrees is that I know there will always be opportunities available if I change my mind. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I’m excited to be a part of this innovative field that’s driving the future!