Careers and Ed: Nurturing the drive

Two computer science programs at Mills College aim to build second-career confidence
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Sheri Wetherby was working at a casino in Tahoe when she decided to become a computer programmer. So she left Tahoe and came to the Bay Area to study. A few years later, she had a job at Microsoft.

Wetherby had hardly a lick of programming background before she got her MA in computer science at Mills College. Her undergraduate degree was in German and French. She'd taken some graduate courses at the University of New Hampshire, including a computer science course that inspired her to envision a second career in the field. But how, she wondered, could she find a program that would allow her to master computers, coming from a liberal arts background?

A friend told her about New Horizons, a reentry program at Mills that teaches computer programming to students with nontechnical backgrounds. "I found the small classes and individual attention helped me get a grounding" in computer science, she says, "before moving on to more advanced topics."

The New Horizons program is specially designed for grad students who don't have an undergraduate degree in computer science. It consists of two undergraduate-level computer science classes per semester for students who also hold down jobs and family responsibilities. Students can choose to finish the New Horizons program with a certificate but most go on to pursue a master's degree from the Interdisciplinary Computer Science program at Mills. The ICS program aims to build bridges between computer science and computer users and offers graduate coursework as well as a master's thesis track.

Some New Horizons students find computer science too difficult or different than they expected, "but the majority are successful and happy," Mills computer science associate professor Ellen Spertus says. She recommends students with no CS experience try taking some community college courses in the subject first — to see if their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, in programming terms.

At a community college, students can take the prerequisite math and CS classes at a fraction of the cost before going to Mills, says Constance Conner, an instructor in the Computer Science Department at City College of San Francisco who studied in the ICS program at Mills. Community college "is also a good place to start if a student is not 100 percent sure" about a CS degree, she says. Then, if students' appetites are still whet, the Mills program will guide them along a new career path.

CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

Computer science is seen by many hopefuls as a lucrative but daunting field. In the public's mind successful programmers are young, mostly male wizards who almost cosmically penetrate thickets of computer languages and database engineering to manifest unfathomable products. Spertus finds that many students going into her program suffer from low self-esteem — especially female students. She says they'll be earning A's in the program's classes but will be convinced they're not doing well and somehow "don't belong." Her teaching style, simultaneously rigorous and nurturing, helps change their opinion, she hopes.

Introductory CS classes at most universities "act like weeder courses," scaring away all but the most confident students, Spertus says. Typically, up to half the students fail or drop out of introductory CS classes at other institutions. Spertus says this phenomenon hits women hardest because they may have less computer experience as well as less confidence.

Also, some students apologize for not having undergrad degrees in CS.

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