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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.
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. Spertus always tells them computer scientists with a narrow focus are "a dime a dozen." But people like them, who know CS along with another field, are unique.
Erica Rios has been an activist since she was a teenager but became frustrated that activists were still using the same methods of organizing Martin Luther King Jr. employed back in the '60s. She had a political science degree and a minor in Chicano studies from UC Davis. As a labor activist for small community nonprofits, she had to teach herself to use computers because nobody else knew how. She saw how technology was changing her native San Jose. She wanted to learn "how tech could be used to engage people in the issues that impact them but they don't necessarily have a direct voice on."
Though Mills is a women's undergrad college, it accepts male graduate students. Men typically make up roughly a third of the participants in the ICS program, but the majority-female environment creates a unique classroom culture. The different gender balance was helpful to Rios because she had a nine-month-old child when she started the program. She felt more comfortable bringing her daughter to her Java class than she would have in a male-dominated classroom and less apt to fall behind on coursework.
The few men enrolled during Rios's time brought a balance to the learning environment, she believes, while showing her that she need not feel uncomfortable as a woman in the computer science field. "There were two other men in class with me and about seven going through the whole program," says Barton Friedland, one of the men who just completed the ICS program. For him, it felt very different to study "with a preponderance of women, but that's something you can learn from."
Friedland took some classes at Stanford before going to Mills. "There seemed to be this attitude where if you asked questions in class, people looked at you funny." If students admitted they didn't know something, they would lose status, and they were supposed to figure out things on your own. Despite Stanford's reputation as one of the top schools in the country, Friedland found Mills's curriculum more thorough.
The smaller class sizes at Mills were also helpful, Rios says. At UC Davis the average class size is 300 in lower-level courses and 75 to 100 in upper-level classes; a class size of 12 to 15 students is more conducive to learning, she found.
It "felt like everyone belonged there and [was] equally capable of learning. I didn't always feel that in larger classes."
The Mills professors "don't throw too much jargon at you, making you feel like you're not smart enough," Rios adds. Instead, the professors step back to observe how students approach problems, then help them learn to problem solve from a more hard-science perspective. Rios now works as an Internet project manager at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, using her activism background to "explore ways in which we can use technology to advance women."
"I felt comfortable speaking in class and asking questions, where in a typical classroom I would not," says former ICS student Lisa Cowan, who has a BA in anthropology and is now pursuing a computer science PhD at UC San Diego. "The professors taught class in a highly interactive way, asking questions and encouraging discussion, helping us solve problems together, making sure all students thoroughly understood the material being covered."
The ICS program at Mills isn't the first reentry program of its kind in the Bay Area. UC Berkeley opened a program in 1983 as a pathway to graduate study in computer science for women and minority students who were underrepresented in Berkeley's crowded and competitive program. Two female Berkeley graduates, Paula Hawthorn and Barbara Simons, noticed in 1982 that the number of female graduate students entering the CS program was actually decreasing over time as the requirements became more geared toward people who had pursued a standard math or engineering track.
The Computer Science Reentry Program at Berkeley gave 159 students a concentrated education in upper-level computer science classes. Ten of those students have gone on to get PhDs. But the program had to fold in 1998 when California passed Proposition 209, which prohibited any state-funded programs that discriminate based on gender and ethnicity.
The interdisciplinary part of the Mills College ICS program's name means students combine computer science with another area of study to produce their master's theses. "It gives you a really broad brush," says Wetherby, the former casino worker. When a student comes to Spertus with a thesis idea, she always asks how it uses what the student has learned about computer science. But she also asks why the thesis is something that she, a narrowly trained computer scientist, couldn't do. She finds the interdisciplinary approach helps students make more of a contribution and also realize they can do things that Spertus, who has a PhD from MIT, can't.
While still at Mills, Wetherby had internships at IBM and Apple Research. When she was job hunting after the program, someone from Microsoft called her because her studies had combined computer science and education. Microsoft needed someone who could write educational programs to teach programmers about Microsoft tools.
Another Mills student, Liz Quigg, had already been an applications programmer at science labs before joining the ICS program. She'd crunched high-energy physics and moon-walk data. But the program's interdisciplinary focus also helped her get into writing educational software. Afterward, she was able to help create educational programs for the science center at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.
"It was very useful because my job now is very interdisciplinary," Quigg says. "I work with scientists, teachers, and students. I cross different worlds." *
The deadline to apply for the New HorizonsICS program this term is Feb. 1. You can find information and application forms online at www.mills.edu/admission/graduate.