Letter from the Editor: Why you should start your college CS learning at a community college.

Hello reader, please enjoy another of our series, “A letter from our editor.” Nick Giampietro has been writing for the GetReal blog since it started, and has recently started studying computer science. Here, he shares his experience at PCC, so you can make a more informed decision when you start your college journey.


Dear HS Students,

Don’t go straight to a university, if you want to study computer science. Start at a community college. Besides the obvious monetary benefits (it’s much cheaper), you’ll find that the instructors at community colleges are often much more active and passionate about helping you succeed.

Shot of TCB at PCC Sylvania

This is TCB, the Technology Classroom Building, at PCC Sylvania

University professors are almost always very qualified people, but they don’t necessarily care about you. They have a Ph.D in whatever they’re teaching, usually professional experience, and actively do research. But something has happened to many science departments: professors get so caught up in their research that they forget that universities are about students. And as a result, many freshmen and sophomores get turned off by class sizes over 100, and no face-to-face contact with their professor.

And guess what? Community college instructors are also very qualified. Take Michael Trigoboff of Portland Community College, for example. He also has a Ph.D in computer science, and he’s been a professional programmer for over 30 years. Does that sound qualified to you?

Portrait shot of Michael Trigoboff

Dr. Trigoboff meets his students with a smile and a subtle sense of humor, every class we have.

Right now I just started taking a class with Dr. Trigoboff called “Programming Systems,” (using Java and C++) and have been very happy with the experience. In a classroom of less than 30, everyone gets plenty of time to speak with him and ask questions whenever they want. He programs right before your eyes, helps teach you often difficult things like how to use a professional-level IDE (which is not really a part of computer science, but is definitely a big part of any programming job).

In a nutshell, he works hard to help each of his students succeed. If you also want to succeed, best you find people who want to help you along.

Plus, community colleges often work closely with nearby universities, so transferring is easy. That way, you can get your first two years of university schooling done for a much lower cost, with people who are much more interested in helping you, and then you can transfer to a university—where, then taking upper-division classes since you started at a CC, you’ll also get much closer contact with your professors.

What’s more, you might even be able to start going to community college in high school. Ask your school counselor about early college programs, and see if you can get started NOW.

Read on:

Another letter from the editor: Why you should study CS right out of high school.

A while back, we posted a letter from our primary contributor and editor, Nick Giampietro, telling his story in the world of computer science, and what it’s come to mean to him. We highly recommend it—he didn’t write your typical “study CS because the world needs you!” or “because you can get rich!” story, that’s for sure.

Here, Nick keeps you updated about his progress towards a CS degree, and tells you more about his story.


Dear HS Students,

It’s been a while since I last wrote you. Since then a lot has happened, and I’ve come to realize a number of things about my choices in school. I hope you can learn from my experiences, so you don’t have to go through the same trials that I’ve had to.

Here’s the thing: Like many of you will have to do, I’m taking out student loans for college. Somewhere in the ballpark of $20,000 or more, depending on how you do it (I’d rather not give you an exact number for mine—it’s not pretty). Once I graduate I have to start making payments on those loans. My plan was to pay those back with my salary from the JET Program, a prestigious English-teaching opportunity in Japan which is a great experience and pays well.

And I’ve been volunteering at The International School, teaching elementary school in Japanese, in order to get experience prior to entering the JET program. Like I said before, I decided to get a degree in Japanese—because I love studying it. But only when I got rejected by the JET Program did I realize how few options a degree in Japanese leaves me.

What else can I do with a Japanese degree? I could translate (competitive and not well paying) or be an interpreter (same story), or I could teach in a university (same story again). It’s what I love—but if I wound up doing some work like this, barely making enough to pay back my loans and feed myself, working way too hard so I don’t get replaced, and feeling unappreciated, do you think I’d still enjoy it then?

That’s where I stand right now: facing slim employment options with my current major and, because of that, probably no good way to start studying CS. After all, if I’m overworked and underpaid, paying off loans, where would I find the time or money to pay for more school?

That’s why I’m delaying my graduation one more year. It’s not something I’m totally happy about, but here’s how I decided to do it: I met with PSU’s academic advisers to look at how soon I could graduate with just a Japanese degree, versus how long it would take to get a minor in computer science as well. The reason I decided to do a minor first is because I can get it sooner, possibly get employed with that, and it also counts towards either bachelor’s or a master’s degree in computer science.

After I got that settled, I spoke with a career counselor to talk about job prospects for someone with my background. I went in and met with a career counselor who specializes in computer science and engineering. I showed him my resumé: degree in Japanese, math tutor, chapter president of an English honor society, and a writing internship (the result of which is this blog).

At first he was skeptical: “To a typical engineering firm, this resumé will look distracted,” he agreed.

That’s because, generally speaking, most companies tend to hire people who graduate from high school, get a regular four-year degree, and find work in their field. Engineering and computer science companies are no different. And even though it’s possible to get work without a degree, it usually means lower pay—and my point is to get out of having lower pay. After talking with me more, and getting to know me a little bit, he found someplace that would like my particular background. This particular company makes education software, is based in Portland, and has a number of Japanese clients. Sounds like a perfect match, right?

It might sound lucky, or too good to be true, but in reality there is almost always going to be an engineering or computer science company that’s perfect for you—regardless of your interests or background. You just have to look.

So here’s what I’m not so happy about: yet another year of school to get that minor, and another year’s worth of student loans. But this is what I am happy about: some credentials (read: a minor) in computer science, a good segue into getting a full degree in CS, a possible internship with a great company, and broadening job opportunities because of all that.

But what if I had just gotten the major in computer science—where would I be? I’d already be graduating this year, still with plenty of student loans but also with broad options for work; I’d be in a job market that pays well enough that I wouldn’t have to worry much about my student loans, and I might even have had enough left over to study Japanese in more depth. What’s more, I could have spent all my free time practicing Japanese.

What’s even more, the JET Program might not have rejected me in the first place, if I’d studied CS. After all, someone who can speak Japanese and also has a degree in something completely different looks a lot better than someone who has a degree which says they can speak Japanese, and can speak Japanese.

So here’s what I want you to get from reading all this: things are going to work out well for me, but I want things to work out great for you. If you have a subject you just love, studying CS is probably a better idea than studying that because then you don’t risk ruining that subject you love by turning it into miserable work. Anyways, the computer science industry is very diverse—if you develop the skills you can probably find a company that’s a good fit for you, just like I did.

And even if you don’t know what interests you yet, or don’t think you’ll ever be that interested in a particular subject, studying CS right from the get-go will still help you. It will put you in a place where you have both time and money, so you can either do what you love, find what you love—or, if you’re not that type of person (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then you can use your time and money to just have fun and be happy.

Sincerely,
Nick

A letter from the editor: Why you should study CS.

We hope everyone has been enjoying the beginning of the school year! We enjoyed a nice break and are finally getting back into the rhythm, with some enhancements to our layout!

Today we’re deviating a bit from the norm, with a personal letter written to our high-school readers, from our editor and primary contributor, Nick Giampietro.


Dear HS students,

Study computer science. You’ve heard some of the perks already, likely from us as well as your teachers, and maybe even your family: you can make good money, you can help people by solving big problems, you’ll be armed to take on the future with an understanding of a technology sought after for hundreds of years, but only about sixty years in the making.

In that short time (short in the scope of human history) it has completely turned the world over. Try to imagine a world without search engines like Google. Try to imagine communicating without cell phones, texting or email. Try to imagine doing preliminary research without having Wikipedia as a starting point. Imagine trying to find your way around a new city without GPS. Can you?

I can’t.

But you’ve all heard this spiel before. What’s gotten me so passionate that I decided to write a personal letter? An epiphany. That this doesn’t convince everyone. It sure didn’t convince me.

Background first: I’ve studied programming and computer science a little bit since middle school. I remember our media class, where we programmed web pages in HTML. Before that, LEGO robotics. In high school, I took a couple programming classes and thought they were pretty cool. But I never took it very seriously. It was kind of a novelty.

What I love is writing, language, and teaching. And that’s what I took seriously. I went to Portland State University, pursuing a double major in Japanese and English, and I loved it. I tutored as a side job. Programming fell by the wayside, and I neglected that part of my life. My closet attraction to programming snuck through in conversations with friends, and with my seeking this job, writing for some great people who want everyone to know how awesome CS and engineering professions are.

Finishing my second to last year at PSU, I decided to go on a road trip with my two best friends. One is studying medicine, and the other is a mechanical engineering major. And there were a few things that happened to me on that trip.

We stopped in Madison, WI for a night, and stayed at an acquaintance’s place (Physics grad students). When we introduced ourselves, it went something like this:

(My friend): “I’m Chris, an undergrad in mechanical engineering. This is Kenny, he’s looking at grad schools for osteopathic medicine. This is Nick. He’s a bum!

Everyone had a good laugh, including me. It’s a running joke that language majors are typically jobless, or are working at coffee shops or high school teachers. I never felt bad when they teased me before, because I knew I wanted to become a teacher eventually, anyways, and because I was doing what I love.

But something stuck this time. And that’s because of the people I’d met on my adventures thus far. During these trips, I met a ton of cool people from all over the world: Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Canada, and plenty of folks from America, of course. Here’s the funny thing: every international person I met, and a huge chunk of the Americans, were all programmers. All majors in computer science. And the international ones all said the same thing:

“I do it because you can get a job just about anywhere in the world.”

They all had different reasons for that: some liked to travel and wanted to be able to do that. Some truly loved it as their hobby. Some wanted to be able to get different kinds of jobs (working at a corporate application company like Microsoft, and then working for a small company trying to invent a new toy, and then working with doctors to find a cure for cancer). And some just wanted a stable, well-paying job, simple as that.

But no matter what their reason was, they all wanted one thing: options. I had a chance to meet with some distant family members. One of them was a programmer, and he told me this:

“It’s not what I love. I love mountain climbing and biking. So I got a job here [in Salt Lake City] next to the mountains and trails. And I make enough money that I can afford to travel and do all the things I love.

“Like I said programming isn’t what I love, but when I was young I didn’t know what I loved. I knew what would get me a good job, and I did that. And it gave me the time I needed to find what I did love, and now it lets me do that.”

A 7,000 mile road trip gives you a lot of time to think, when you’re behind the wheel. And I had dozens of hours to reflect on everything I’d experienced, all the people I’d met, and all the things they said.

And as soon as I got home, I arranged a meeting with a school counselor to figure out a plan to get a degree in computer science.

I’m still going to finish my Japanese degree, naturally. Because I’ve already found what I love and I don’t want to waste my schooling on that. But when I’m in Japan, teaching English and having a great adventure, I’m going to go home, log into Oregon State University’s online campus, and work on completing classes required for a masters degree in computer science.

Here’s what I want you to take from this: you’re not like me. And nobody else is like you. You might or might not know what your passion in life is—what you love. And you might, but it might not be a safe career choice. Or you might just want to keep your options opened, because you’re the kind of person who loves everything and doesn’t want to close doors.

It doesn’t matter who you are, though. A degree in computer science means a good job wherever you go, and that means options. It means time to find your passion, it means a way to travel the world, it means funding for your hobbies. And if you’re lucky, it might also become the thing you love.

Sincerely,
Nick