The Pressures of Success in Undergraduate Computer Science Programs

There is a major problem with the education system.

by Julia Nguyen on August 11th, 2014

Being a diligent student does not cut it anymore when it comes to transforming an undergraduate education into a worth-while career.

Like any student, my identity is shaped by my area of study. As a computer science student in a co-op program, I have developed a habit of constantly asserting my accomplishments to my peers. From completing assignments well before due dates to receiving lucrative internship offers, these assertions have boosted my ego and self-esteem. My classmates think I am confident, outspoken, hardworking, and talented. They turn to me for help with school work and job applications. They think I am incapable of failure and envy how “easy” school is for me, despite the fact that I have at times failed and struggled with courses.

I take in the compliments and use it to piece together my self-esteem. As a woman in computer science, I feel pressured to be “empowering” to other women and appear confident to men. But behind closed doors, I come face-to-face with my demons – the facade of being exceptional and the shame of mental illness. Growing up in an unstable home, I dealt with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For over a decade, I kept my traumatic experiences with mental illness to myself. School became an outlet for me to gain respect from people who only knew about my merits, and not my illness.

Recently, I opened up about my demons through social media. In doing so, I learned that students never allow themselves to appear vulnerable to their peers – whether it be lying about grades or refusing to seek academic help. Mental health is neglected the most. After sharing my mental health story, I received a plethora of private messages from friends and acquaintances detailing their own stories. From attention deficit disorder to bipolar disorder, I learned that many students are ashamed of their mental illnesses. Some have refused to disclose it to family members. Others are proactive and take advantage of on-campus mental health services. Nonetheless, the fear of being “too needy” or “looking weak” prevents all students from confiding in one another.

The need for empathy

The culture of self-assertion at university campuses is forcing students to deal with depression and anxiety silently. Students do not hesitate to gossip about each other and compare academics. Yet they fail at showing empathy – being able to convey understanding and compassion towards each other’s feelings. Despite being surrounded by thousands of students, I feel isolated when it comes to dealing with hardships like mental illness.

Many of my classmates have befriended me for the sole purpose of collaborating on school work. Our conversations are comprised of comparing answers, grades, internships, and nothing more. I broke down in tears during a databases class because I was overwhelmed with everything. No one in that class approached me until I penned an intimate rant about it. To my surprise, acquaintances have been incredibly supportive. Some of my friends have criticized my decision to be candid. Some of them have ignored me completely.

Boxes on a shelf that read 'empathy 200 ml'.

CC-BY Pierre Phaneuf, filtered.

The pressures of being a computer science student

Computer science education is not just about software engineering. It covers a broad range of topics like digital hardware and artificial intelligence. The majority of computer science classes are heavily theory-based. From mathematical induction to first-order logic, these topics are daunting to students who prefer programming.

Any CS course will have frequent assignments. Whether a programming or written assignment, collaboration is inevitable. Cheating is a huge problem and computer science departments have cracked down on identifying cheaters through Turnitin-style software. A handful of my friends have opened up to me about their offences, and consistently, they complained about not having enough time to complete the assignment due to the difficulty of the course, having other courses to worry about, feeling too embarrassed to ask for help from professors and TAs, and having stressful personal lives.

Rows and rows of desks set up in a large auditorium.

CC-BY Robert Elder, filtered.

Skipped or incomplete assignments have caused me to fall behind in courses because I relied on them to solidify my understanding of the material. There is usually no extra credit to retain lost marks, but some courses use a slip day system. Failing assignments or exams can feel like the end of the world. Other than a bell-curve, little sympathy or emotional support is given to students.

Many campus mental health services are helpful – providing access to counselling, medication, and therapy. They also communicate to professors on behalf of students regarding assignment and exam accommodations. But until the end of second year, I was unaware of the mental health services at my school. A concerned friend had asked me if I was using the services. Since then, I have been too busy with school and my personal life to gather my medical history and schedule an appointment.

Without a doubt, many students who could have benefited from these services are unaware or unmotivated to reach out. There is so much priority placed on completing assignments and passing exams that mental health becomes an addenda.

Getting ahead and doing internships

A lot of pressure is placed on undergraduate computer science and related programs to pump out students to work at major tech companies, be entrepreneurial and create start-ups, and create viral app after viral app. In the industry, there is huge demand for programmers, software engineers, and developers.

The 119-minute Google advertisement that was The Internship portrayed the superficial perks of working as a software engineering intern – the free food and housing, Ping-Pong tables, and endless bragging rights.

Look up any Fortune 500 company or tech start-up, and you will likely find a job posting for a technical intern. Many schools with co-op programs have partnerships with these employers. At my school, many co-op students have a reputation of being arrogant. There is a sense of self-entitlement because of the great companies that hire exclusively from here.

Picture of the University of Waterloo Computer Research Center, a large glass, modern building.

CC-BY Victor Vucicevich, filtered.

Like any job search, the process of securing an internship is a tiring one – comprised of writing a ton of cover letters and résumés, and refreshing inboxes. During this period, students will take to social media to announce their interviews and offers. Classroom conversations are marathons to compare yourself with others. People with Google or Facebook prospects will immediately receive praise, and everyone else is left to defend their pride.

Students are constantly putting each other down to feel superior. Online groups for incoming frosh are filled with people showcasing their apps and intimidating their peers. Students who are not in co-op are made to feel like failures for not finding internships. A friend told me that I should not “feel bad” for not getting a job at a certain Silicon Valley company because I was not “exceptional enough”.

Everyone deals with rejection at one point or another. The cookie-cutter email thanking you for applying for the job has made me cry. Like receiving an undesirable grade, being rejected from an internship makes me feel insecure about my intelligence. I resort to comparing myself to classmates who seem more successful.

Co-op education is great because it gives students hands-on experience to explore career options. At the same time, students are using internships like grades to measure their self-worth, compare themselves to other students, and discredit others’ accomplishments to make themselves feel better by contrast.

Being Vulnerable

Despite the high-pressure environment of computer science programs, mental health and well-being needs to hold priority over school. Accommodations with school work can be made if you reach out to professors and mental health clinics on campus. Most students are too busy or embarrassed to do this, and in that case, finding support from classmates is important. As competitive as school and internships are, students are competing the most with their self-esteem. I have yet to see any courses that teach students how to deal with academic failure and poor mental health. In an introductory health course I took, the professor said to look out for people who appear suicidal and nothing more about confronting mental health. The co-op courses I had to take did not teach me how to deal with job rejections and arrogance from my peers. All I have done is hide my weaknesses, and gloat as much as possible.

As I see it, there is a major problem with the education system – it does not teach students how to deal with hardships openly. We can be vulnerable in doctor’s offices and behind closed doors, but nowhere else. It is simply not enough. We should be opening up conversations in the classroom, online, and in-person about failure, empathy, and mental health. Students need to know and perhaps be taught that they are worth more than their degree.

Homepage of if me. It reads 'if me is an open-source community for mental health experiences. Share your story with trusted allies and get the support you deserve. Keep track of medications, appointments and create alerts. Be you, no strings attached.'

To help, I am working on an open-source project called if me, a community of mental health experiences where people can open up about their triggers to those they trust. I have made some progress on it, but I would love to get help from people in the tech community. It is a Ruby on Rails app which will let users describe their experiences of triggers, find and add allies, and keep track of medication. In the future, I hope to add an email and SMS system for appointments and other alerts, in-depth profiles, and more customization for sharing experiences. If you are interested, please check out the Github page and get in touch.