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What Harvard Students Won't Tell You About Computer Science

By Madeleine L. LaPuerta
Madeleine L. LaPuerta ’20 is a Computer Science concentrator in Leverett House.

I walked into Harvard Yard’s gates in the fall of 2016 as an eager, a-bit-too-annoying freshman completely set on studying Computer Science. When I attended the first lecture of Harvard’s world-famous Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science,” I sat in the front row and even volunteered to answer a question. It was a simple prompt about binary notation, and I totally rocked it.

As the semester went on, I slowly began to develop less of a clue regarding what I was doing. Loading and reading files? Never heard of it. C++? What on earth is that? Why is compiling so...hard?

I struggled a lot in CS50, pulling all-nighters in Lamont Library only to end up with more lines of gibberish code than I had started with. The final project, though, gave me hope. I figured if I harnessed my creativity and focused on learning concepts I was excited about, I could make something really cool.

So I downloaded XCode, taught myself Objective-C, and watched YouTube tutorials on how to create an iOS app. Fifty hours later, “I’d Rap That”, a photo caption generator based on a library of over six hundred rap lyrics, was done and working smoothly.

When I checked my final grades, I was horrified at the result of my CS50 efforts: a C. Here I was, expecting to become a software engineer, with a C in the first college coding class I’d ever taken.

So, I said goodbye to the Computer Science department and waved hello to the world of Economics. I fit in better in economics classes, anyway. I used to be really into polo shirts.

Regardless of my major switch, I actually thought “I’d Rap That” was a good project. I sent an email to my professor, sticking up for myself and for my work. After much back-and-forth, my grade was changed. My GPA went up by 0.2.

Later, when I launched “I’d Rap That” onto the iOS App Store, it received two thousand downloads within the first month. It also, for some reason, became quite popular in China. It was a good project, and I wondered why my professor hadn’t seen that.

The summer after my freshman year, randomly and with no prompt, I suddenly knew I had to go back to Computer Science.

I had allowed CS50 to scare me away. The tech-bro culture it perpetuated, with its t-shirts and swag and hackathon, had made me feel like computer science was not a place in which I could thrive. Besides, at the end of it, my initial efforts had been given a C.

I had wrongly concluded that an arbitrary letter grade, given to me by a professor who simply did not understand the worth of the product I’d created, was a determinant of my intelligence in a field.

I decided that I was not going to let tech bros affect my future and the choices I made. I actually liked Computer Science, and I was just going to have to deal with not fitting in.

Sophomore fall, I walked into Computer Science 61: “Systems Programming and Machine Organization” wearing a summer dress and carrying a tote bag. By contrast, the classroom was packed with over one hundred boys in hoodies and sneakers, who seemingly already knew everything there was to know about systems programming and machine organization.

That semester, I was never able to find someone who wanted to partner up with me. The teaching assistants saw me come to office hours by myself, knew I was struggling grades-wise, and yet none reached out and told me: “You got this, stick with it.”

Partner-less, I finished the semester with another GPA-lowering grade. I stuck with Computer Science, anyways.

The rest of my time at Harvard played out similarly, although things did get better.

My junior spring, I worked as a course assistant for Computer Science 20: “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science,” a title I hold again this semester simultaneously with an Applied Mathematics course. It’s important to me to reach out to the girls I see come to office hours alone, and tell them: “You can do this, stick with it.”

I’ve worked for several startups, completed a summer internship at a big-tech company, am conducting my own CS research, and will be joining a top consulting firm after graduating in May. The hard work I put into obtaining these opportunities outshone any ways in which I’d struggled — any ways in which I did not fit in as an engineer.

I notice that people at Harvard don’t often talk about finding coursework difficult since, at a hyper-competitive school, people become wary of showing any weakness. Well, here I am, talking about it.

I’ve struggled, cried, and nearly failed in Computer Science, and my life has still moved forward. My hardships, in retrospect, have taught me more than my successes, and are likely the reason why, three years after receiving that soul-crushing C, I am doing just fine.

Madeleine L. LaPuerta ’20 is a Computer Science concentrator in Leverett House.

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