In Her Words: What It Means To Be A Computer Science Major At Barnard

Eleanor Murguia

Proud. That is the first thing I think when asked how I feel about being a computer science major at Barnard. Proud that I came to Barnard being wholly afraid of programming, and will be graduating in May with a degree in computer science. Proud that I am a queer woman and a tech bro. Proud that I have somehow managed to survive the absurdity and of navigating the nastily hard requirements of a major not technically at my college.

My first semester at Barnard majoring in computer science was the furthest thing from my mind. I loved the humanities in high school, and fought hard for survival in my calculus classes. But, as an eager admitted student perusing the Barnard website, I came across information on a weekly class teaching the basics of HTML and CSS. I signed up because I was determined to make college a time of Trying New Things.

By the end of the semester this (un-graded) class had become my top priority; creating websites out of nothing was far more interesting than any of my intro lectures. By the end of my first year I had successfully completed my first computer science course and was almost certain about my intended major, though it would take another year until I actually declared.

My late declaration was mostly fueled by not knowing who in the computer science department I would need to sign my form. Stalling to declare — despite my love for the subject — is reflective of my overall experience in the major. In many ways, the Columbia’s computer science department is just not set up for Barnard students — generally not due to incompetence or malice — but because of the complex “four school relationship.”

The computer science building, located on the fourth floor of Mudd, requires swipe access to enter during non-business hours. This swipe access is automatically granted to all Columbia computer science majors upon declaration, allowing them access to classrooms, administrative offices, and meeting spaces during nights and weekends. It took more than a year after I declared my major until I was granted swipe access. Getting this access included requesting access through the computer science department portal, and emailing department administrators multiple times. Barnard friends and classmates in the major have described similar experiences.

While this swipe access may not seem incredibly important, it is actually key to ensuring access to after hours projects and Teaching Assistant meetings. Simple logistics, which most CC/SEAS majors likely do not think twice about, can become major hassles for Barnard students. This encompasses everything from ensuring all Columbia computer science courses are properly listed on Barnard Student Planning (upper level classes or special projects often are not) to constantly requesting Google Drive access for class Google Forms or recitation notes.

This logistical stress unhealthily coexists with the fact that the major is incredibly difficult, and the amount of Barnard faculty advisor support is essentially non-existent. I have been assigned various Columbia major advisors, who have been very kind and as helpful as they can be when they have received seemingly no instruction on Barnard student planning.

So yes, logistically and bureaucratically being a computer science major at Barnard often is not very fun. It has involved quite a lot of self-advocacy to get past unnecessary obstacles.

But, despite all this, if you asked me whether you should major in computer science, my answer would probably still be yes. Do I wish I had taken fewer three hundred person classes in a college that boasts about having more than seventy percent of classes with fewer than twenty people? Definitely. Has taking an amazing English seminar this semester made me wish I had spent fewer nights rage quitting programming assignments and more reading and writing, which is what I thought my college experience would be like when I started first-year with an intended history major? Completely.

But being a computer science major at Barnard has enabled me to take a variety of liberal arts classes — a privilege I know majors at SEAS often do not get. It has enabled to me to grow my skills and suffer the pain of the major within a small, supportive community.

Most of all, it has enabled me be a badass and well-rounded computer whizz.