March 20, 2020

Hello, world (of coding)

Emma Wolff ’21

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When I arrived at Mount Holyoke, it was with every intent to major in international relations. My passion for politics was sparked in high school, after volunteering for the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign in New York City. I admired Sanders’ radical views on criminal justice reform and public assistance, having grown up facing parental incarceration and immense poverty. And, coming from rural Iowa, I was anxious to learn as much as I could about the rest of the world. 

Throughout my first two years, I explored the wonders of foreign policy and absorbed the roles and histories of international institutions. I even began learning Arabic, a language I had never heard in person before relocating to the East Coast. 

Emma Wolff ’21 during her first year at Mount Holyoke
Emma Wolff ’21 during her first year at Mount Holyoke

I didn’t consider taking any STEM courses, which most definitely included computer science. I listened to my peers talk about the learning curve in introductory computer science courses and feared the risk to my GPA wouldn’t be worth the exploration. 

A single “Word Out” email, which is sent twice a week by the Division of Student Life, made me rethink this fear completely. 

At the bottom of the email, I spotted an opportunity for students to participate in Adjacent Academies’ Summer of Code boot camp in San Francisco, California. As a low-income and self-supporting student who already struggles to afford tuition, I would usually assume that such an opportunity wasn’t for me. But there was this enticing bit: Two students would receive a full scholarship, made possible by Nancie L. Fimbel ’68, the generous alumna and namesake of the Fimbel Maker & Innovation Lab

Student workers at the Fimbel Maker & Innovation LabStudent workers at the Fimbel Maker & Innovation Lab

I filled out the application, which led to several interviews with both Mount Holyoke and Adjacent. During the interviews, I sold myself as a learner who stays curious in the face of frustration and compared learning Arabic to learning how to code. 

Several weeks later, when I received my acceptance and promise of full aid, I was overjoyed. But I wasn’t sure exactly what the experience would bring. 

During my six weeks at Adjacent, I studied from 8 am to 6 pm alongside 15 students from across the United States, learning both technical and networking skills. Many days were intentionally extended, as our group became close and our capacity to code grew from “hello, world” simple programs to creating functional websites. Each Monday, we pitched ideas for web apps and games, then formed groups and got to work. Each Friday, we presented our results. 

Nancie L. Fimbel ’68
Nancie L. Fimbel ’68

My patron, Nancie L. Fimbel ’68, visited the program’s headquarters several times. Even though we had just met, Nancie showed an interest in who I was and who I wanted to be. When she visited my course in the Fimbel Lab this past fall, it felt like seeing family. 

The final week of the program, I pitched an idea for an educational website on the Constitution. On our last day together, my team and I presented the site to a room of established San Francisco techies. It was nerve-wracking but exhilarating! 

As our group said its goodbyes, I felt blindsided by how much I’d grown. I left with a newfound love for coding and the logic inherent to software engineering. I found I love leading a team. I also discovered that in the world of software, learning isn’t limited to a formal class setting or dynamic. Once you know how to utilize the internet, nothing obstructs your path to knowledge. 

The author at the Community Center, Cochary Pub & Kitchen
The author at the Community Center, Cochary Pub & Kitchen

Since my return to campus, I have delved deeply into the world of computer science. I am now in upper-level computer science courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, designing websites in my free time and working for the computer science department on campus. Last semester, my interests merged (gleefully!) in my cyberpolitics course at Mount Holyoke, when my professor — Visiting Lecturer in International Relations Bryan Nakayama — allowed me to build a website on international surveillance spyware sales in lieu of a formal final paper. 

The author at Adjacent Academies’ Summer of Code boot camp
The author at Adjacent Academies’ Summer of Code boot camp, graduation day

I have also recently leveraged my experience with Adjacent during interviews for summer 2020 internships, and have accepted a software engineering internship with JPMorgan Chase in New York City. After graduation, I hope to continue to merge my interests in technology and activism, and someday lead a collaborative team. 

My realization that I love computer science all began with one alumna’s decision to help students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I feel beyond blessed to attend a college surrounded by a community that forever shall open doors, and forever shall be.

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Emma Wolff ’21, originally from a “big-because-we-have-a-Walmart” town in Iowa, majors in computer science and international relations. She feels fortunate every day to be enriching her education at Mount Holyoke, where she has made lifelong friends from all over the world. And she remains ever grateful to her grandparents, who raised her. And to the Columbia professor Wolff met in New York City, where she was modeling full time, who encouraged her to apply to college.
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