Hello world! My name is Michaela Digan and I am a rising senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst majoring in Informatics with an IT minor. I’ve helped to organize hackathons, built a website for my Fencing team and am currently interning at Liberty Mutual working with machine learning and text analytics. But before all this, I failed.
Before I declared a major I went into college lost, nervous, but excited to try everything I could. I gave economics a try, math, anthropology, but nothing could keep me interested enough to stay. Declaring a major seemed pretty restrictive and felt like boxing myself in. I always loved to try new things because it kept my mind active and kept me engaged. My high school had only one class in computer science and it was so small that I never heard about it until after graduation. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine started describing a new major she had found, Informatics, that I even considered going into the tech industry. Informatics seemed like a blend of computer science, statistics, and graphics. It opened the door to new exciting opportunities because it seemed to have a hand in several fields. It sounded perfect to me. I feel in love with the idea of being able to see multiple different fields from healthcare and insurance companies like MassMutual to finance and banking like Fidelity. There was just one small problem.
CompSci 186 is a class that introduces fundamental abstract data types and algorithms using java. It is required for the informatics major and is one of the first classes you take. It was the first class where I really saw the stark gender difference in computer science, the first class where I went to office hours almost daily. I struggled in that class staying up well past midnight working on assignments and studying. In my sophomore spring semester, my first semester after choosing to major in informatics, I failed CompSci 186.
Now failing a class is never fun, and failing a class required for your major is scary. For me personally, I felt like I had let not just myself down, but all of my friends who helped me. I went into a spiral thinking that by failing this one course it somehow proved that most girls can’t do computer science. That I couldn’t do computer science. That was heartbreaking. Finally finding what I believed was a perfect major and failing as soon as things started to get difficult.
Those were my initial thoughts. After taking a couple breaths and taking some time to think I decided to try again. I looked back at my grades and saw how close I had been to passing, that got me motivated to take the class again. I refused to give up when I had been that close, not after all the hard work I had put in over the semester. I took that summer to go over the class material again, I took the time to learn how I learned. I found that I needed quiet for studying new material and some light distraction, like music, for review. With these new techniques I was able to study smarter and not spend hours past midnight trying to study harder and longer wearing myself out.
The following fall semester I went back into CompSci 186 determined to prove to myself that I was capable of learning from my mistakes. I managed to work my semester around the class and was careful to give myself time to focus on the assignments. I pushed back some harder classes till the next semester and went to office hours prepared with questions only after I had tried to understand and fix the problem myself. After the summer spent reviewing the class, the material was easier to follow and I found myself grasping concepts I had given up on the past semester. I became interested in not just the class material we were tested on but the extra side note material the professor provided on topics we didn’t have time to cover in class.
The class was still not easy, even when I took it the second time. I had to continue to study and work through problems that left me wanting to throw my computer out the nearest window sometimes. But the reward of seeing my code run correctly felt more real and more satisfying now that I could understand the problems and the solutions better. By the end of the semester after hard work, a lot of focus and help from my friends I was able to pass CompSci 186 with an A.
Since then the classes have gotten harder, but I have gotten smarter. I continue to put the extra time that I need into studying a topic in order to understand it fully. I’m incredibly glad I had such good friends who believed in me even after getting the first failing grade back. They supported me and helped me understand concepts I had trouble with. I’ve gained so much from retaking that class. I moved on to take on a leadership role organizing HackUMass, I tried web programming and really enjoyed it, my confidence grew and helped me to believe in myself and make those first step towards my goals.
The most important step I took to learn from my failure was taking that breath after seeing that I had failed. Sometimes you need to step back and calm down before you start thinking that you are not capable of something. When you fail, and someday you very well may, I hope you can remember to take a look at how hard you tried to succeed and not see that as the final end, but as a learning opportunity. I hope you choose to learn and grow. It’s not the end of everything if you fail. You are going to fail, everyone is going to fail at some point in their lives. How you recover from failure is where you can show the world what matters to you. Make self improvement matter to you, make persistence matter to you. Don’t give up, even when things get tough.