Recently I experienced something very exciting. I discovered I completed all of the required courses I need to finish my degree and on 16 May I attended my commencement. During the last four years, I’ve studied at Youngstown State University for a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science with a minor in Mathematics. A lot has happened in these four years and I find it valuable to reflect on these events and experiences and share.
I find having a degree to be very important and think that getting a degree was the right choice for me. This being said, I don’t think I went into my studies knowing that it was right for me, and I think a lot of people make this same mistake. I did hobby software development before I started studying and knew I wanted to make it a career. I also knew I wanted to have a strong knowledge of computers and both high-level and low-level software development. I wasn’t aware of all the options I had though. I could have chosen multiple degrees (Computer Science, Computer Information Systems, or Information Technology). or I could have chosen to go to a technical school or community college.
After finishing high school, I went to a university only because I knew I needed some kind of certification and everyone seemed to expect me to go to a university. Although this worked out for me and if I could go back in time I would have made the same decision (although maybe with an additional major), it’s not good to plan your future based on uneducated assumptions of what you think is right for you and expectations others have in you. When you choose your education or certification, make sure the choice is what you want and that it is well-informed.
My university is located in Ohio in the United States. The United States has extremely high tuition costs. Even at my university, which is cheap in comparison with other US universities, we pay approximately $8,000 per year if we are a resident of Ohio. Out-of-state and international students pay more.
In the first year I was awarded a scholarship which helped pay a few thousand dollars of my tuition. In addition, the Federal Pell Grant Program helped pay the rest. My first year’s tuition was totally covered. The problem is, as I started to work to cover other expenses and started to save money for the tuition I would pay the next year, the Pell Grant payed less money because of my increased income. This meant I needed to save large amounts of money just to pay for my tuition (usually about 50% of my gross income). This was a significant amount of my income, and I was working as a software developer, a skilled position which allowed me to make more money than most students can. I have no idea how students at other universities who do not have previous background in their field keep their loan debt low. I assume most of them just pay away the debt for several years (or longer) after they finish their degrees, which I find very sad.
In the end though, I have payed almost all of my tuition without the use of loans. The only loans I did use do not accumulate interest until 6 months after my graduation. I do not anticipate problems paying the remainder back in that time frame, so I do not anticipate paying any interest on debt from university.
I am very afraid people will try to use me as an example though. Many people (mostly in older generations) believe that there is nothing wrong with the cost of education in the United States. Most of these people attended universities before the cost of tuition increased as much as it has. As I have pointed out, I had exceptional circumstances. My previous experience in my field helped me earn more money than many students can, I lived with family, I could attend a cheap university, and I still saved a large percentage of my income. An overwhelming majority of students will not have this same opportunity.
If you attend a university and you’re interested in seeing what really happens outside of lectures and exams, get involved in research. The research that I did during my undergraduate studies was related to alternative splicing (although I only wrote the software and biologists did the rest of the work) and eye-tracking in software engineering. These were not topics in which I had a particularly strong interest, but the research was still usually enjoyable and it allowed me to see how universities help expand the extent of our knowledge. Research also allowed me to see how peer review and collaboration play a role in finding more information and verifying that what contributors write actually makes sense. Research really helped me understand in detail how we can expand the extent of our knowledge in a scientific way.
When I started studying at the university in 2011, I just came from a high school where my opportunities were limited. We had a small high school with about 500 students during most years. We didn’t have many advanced classes other than the option to take Calculus in the last year and the option to take an advanced English class. I wrote software entirely as a hobby and never found any opportunities to use this outside of what I found on the Internet.
Suddenly, when I attended a university with about 15,000 students, I found plenty of opporunities to use these skills. I was offered a university job and a job working for a local start-up company. I was asked to form a team for the ICPC programming competition and was offered the position as president of our student chapter of the ACM, which previously became defunct after all of the officers either graduated or changed universities. These were all great opportunities, but I became too excited about each opportunity and always said “yes”, when I really did not have the time to handle all of those responsibilities to the best of my ability.
With time I realised I always felt over-worked and needed to consider which opportunities I could afford to take and get out of responsibilities I couldn’t afford. I think this is an extremely important lesson for anyone who is transitioning from secondary to higher education. You cannot do everything. Choose what is valuable and say “no” to the other opportunities.
When you’re studying in a university you get a LOT of chances to meet new people, and many different kinds of people. Utilise this. Unlike most secondary schools, universities attract not only local residents but also residents from far across the country and world. Attend a few events at your university that sound interesting and meet new people and you’ll be shocked at the variety you find. During my studies I was involved in some of the organisations and events that our computer science department and international studies department set up. Never before in my life did I have such great opportunities to meet such diverse people with interests similar to mine. I’m very glad I took advantage of those opportunities.
During secondary school I generally didn’t focus much on my studies and put most of my effort into things I wanted to learn outside of school. Somehow I managed to keep very good marks even without trying too much. When I started university, my studying habits changed immediately. If I could go back to secondary school and study the way I did during university, I am fairly sure I would have perfect marks.
To get to where I am, I had to do a lot of studying. In particular with courses like Calculus 2, Discrete Mathematics, Algorithms, and Abstract Algebra, I had to spend a lot of time studying for exams and working on assignments. In the end though, I feel I got a lot out of it. I built a better appreciation for the content in those courses because I had to thoroughly understand complex concepts.
I think the last four years and my education have been an extremely important part of my development. Although there is much that could have been done differently and probably better, I feel that I’ve learned a lot, both academic and personal. For anyone who is planning to start a new education through a university, apprenticeship, technical school, etc: you’ll learn a lot more than just your field of study.