Strengthening and supporting "one of the last tenets of the American dream"
SaraAnn Stanway was having “a really horrible day.”
But it would prove to be an important turning point in her undergraduate years at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
Stanway was a first year student, preparing for a computer science midterm in her data structures class. She hunkered down in the CAVE, a student lab and study space at the Hill Center.
“It was at the beginning of exam week,” says Stanway, now a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “My to-do list was so huge that I had no idea where to start, and I was completely exhausted.”
A sophomore named Sakib Jalal introduced himself to ask if she’d like to try solving a data structures problem.
“I was annoyed at first,” Stanway says. “I wasn’t in the mood to be interacting with other humans. But I solved it, and then he gave me another one, and this went on for a few hours.”
Jalal, as it turned out, was a member of the Undergraduate Student Alliance of Computer Scientists (USACS), a little-known but well-networked group with a simple mission: “Keep the Rutgers computer science/tech community thriving.”
The group, built up over years by passionate students including Sakib’s older brother Sameen Jalal SAS‘13, has been extraordinarily resourceful at finding ways to accomplish its mission: Staging hack-a-thons, forging connections with tech companies, and creating a strong, supportive culture of mentoring for Rutgers students majoring in computer science.
Stanway, for example, ended up getting a perfect score on her midterm.
“The practice problems Sakib gave me were particularly difficult because they were the ones that companies use to test software engineering candidates,” she says. “Of course he didn’t tell me that until after I got my exam score back.”
That was just the beginning. Stanway and other students say USACS has opened up avenues—from social gatherings to research projects to opportunities for jobs and internships. Last year, Stanway was selected for the hackNY Fellows Program, one of the premier computer science summer fellowships in the nation. She was one of four fellows from Rutgers among two dozen students from schools such as MIT, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Stanford.
“Our presence in hackNY is a major source of pride,” Stanway says. “Every year USACS mentors teach their mentees about it, urge them to apply, and help review their application before they send it in.”
Ben Yang, a junior, says he arrived at Rutgers knowing he would major in computer science, but feeling little passion for the field or for getting involved in the community.
“I just wanted to get ahead and get a job,” he says. “But meeting the people in USACS inspired me and transformed my undergraduate experience. Everyone was involved and willing to share their experiences and advice. These were people that I could hang out with and call friends.”
Thu D. Nguyen, chair of the Department of Computer Science, praised the group’s contributions.
“The students have taken incredible initiative to build a strong community, which strengthens the department,” Nguyen says. “And their outreach programs are a wonderful way for the students to expand their impact beyond Rutgers.”
This year, Stanway and Yang are serving as USACS president and outreach director respectively, steering the group toward new challenges.
“I owe a lot of where I am now to the USACS community,” says Yang, who was a hackNY fellow over the summer. “Now I want to pass on the torch to younger students. The idea is always to make sure everyone is included.”
In 2018, USACS was active on numerous fronts. The group brought in guest speakers to Rutgers like the pioneering computer scientist Brian Wilson Kernighan. The group is also in the early stages of a project that—when finalized—would provide data engineering assistance to the Human Trafficking Response Unit overseen by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
“We would be the only college with undergraduates volunteering to write code to put sex traffickers in prison,” Stanway says. “That’s pretty incredible.”
USACS is also working hard to make the ranks of computer science students more diverse. Stanway credits Tanya Balaraju SAS’18 with helping to create more support networks for women students. And Stanway has developed a program to make “virtual classroom visits” to New Jersey schools.
Stanway says the idea is to reach out to disadvantaged school districts and show students the array of possibilities in pursuing tech careers. She took charge of one last year at Hackensack Middle School and is planning more in the coming year.
“To me, computer science is one of the last tenets of the American dream,” Stanway says.
“There are not many fields where you can go from an impoverished background to upper middle class in one generation.
“We have a responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to enjoy and thrive in this field that many of us would not have known about were it not for luck and privilege.”