Finding your place in computer science

Alejandro Castaneda, WiCS 2020-21 student president

How a Portland State student group makes the major more welcoming for all

If you’re a current or prospective computer science student, you may have heard of We in Computer Science, more commonly known as WiCS, one of PSU’s student-led computer science groups. But do you know much about the group’s goals or what it offers for CS students? WiCS’s 2020-2021 president, Alejandro Castaneda, weighs in on four key things to know about the group.

1. Name

WiCS was originally founded as “Women in Computer Science” by a group of women at PSU who felt that they didn’t belong and that there wasn’t a space for them in computer science.

That out-of-place feeling was largely due to a general trend in tech: “As courses go on to the upper division, the amount of women and people of color in classes just drops down significantly,” Alejandro explains. “This is something seen throughout the whole industry, where people of color and women have higher burnout rates . . . It’s this culture of tech that is very exclusionary.”

The group was later renamed to “We in Computer Science” as an acknowledgement that several groups —including women and people of color as well as LGBTQIA+ and gender non-conforming people, first-generation immigrants, and disabled people — face this exclusionary culture.

2. Mission

Its name may have changed, but WiCS has always focused on supporting each of these groups that have been historically underrepresented in computer science. WiCS envisions a future in which these groups are truly included — a future in which diversity is celebrated and people can truly feel that they belong in computer science.

WiCS works to build this future by providing a community in which members can receive advice and guidance from people who may have been through similar experiences. Essentially, as Alejandro says, “In case they are struggling, or in case they’re feeling alone, they have this whole community that is also there to support them.”

“In case they are struggling, or in case they’re feeling alone, they have this whole community that is also there to support them.”

— Alejandro Castaneda, WiCS 2020-21 president

3. Mentorship program

WiCS’s mentorship program is one major way in which it builds this community. Mentees are paired up with a mentor (who can, in turn, also be a mentee if they so choose). It’s one of WiCS’s biggest highlights, Alejandro says. The mentor helps foster connections between their mentee and the rest of the WiCS community, and helps guide them through courses and jobs.

The 2020-2021 school year marks the third year of the program, and with 23 mentors and 36 mentees total, it’s still going strong even in this year’s remote world.

4. Events

Aside from its mentorship program, WiCS also holds several events throughout the year designed to help and support its community. Here are the big ones:

  • Annual Winter Career in Tech Night: A workshop in which local tech companies are connected with WiCS members to provide real-world advice for resumes, internships, interviews, networking, hiring standards, and everything else career-related.
  • Annual Spring Hackathon: Participants work with a team over a weekend on a real coding project to encourage community growth and bolster coding skills for students of ALL levels.
  • Monthly Town Halls: These often feature presentations from members of the tech community and discussions about how to both improve and thrive within the industry.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about WiCS is that they want you to get involved. Alejandro advises checking out WiCS’s website and its Slack channel, and recommends people who are curious to come to one of the events it hosts.

Just taking the initiative to attend a WiCS event is a fantastic first step. “Even if your video’s off, even if your mic is on mute, you still showed up,” Alejandro says. That bit of involvement can lead to deeper participation and connection, and can potentially create an experience that’ll stick with you for years.

WiCS may focus on supporting groups that are historically underrepresented in computer science in particular, but that doesn’t mean that only people in those groups can be a part of its community. Anyone who shares WiCS’s vision of a future where everyone can feel welcome in computer science is encouraged to take that first step and check the group out!

— University Communications

What The COVID-19 Test Is Really Like

By Claire Golden

After scheduling an upcoming medical procedure, the doctor informed me that I would have to get tested for COVID-19 prior to going. My heart sank. I’ve never enjoyed going to the doctor. Well, nobody does, but for me it used to be a phobia that would lead to tears and panic attacks. I’ve come a long way and it doesn’t scare me like it used to, but I was far from enthused about being tested for COVID. I understood why they had to do it. But the nervous butterflies started up. In fact, I was more scared for the COVID test than I was for my upcoming surgery. Anxiety is a silly thing sometimes!

There are a few types of tests to see if you have COVID. One involves spitting in a tube, another involves twirling a swab just inside your nose. However, the one I would be getting — and the one I was scared of — is the nasopharyngeal swab, where a long, skinny Q-tip-looking thing is inserted far back into your nostril to get the back of your sinus. When I looked up a diagram of this, I thought, “Nope,” and proceeded to hyperventilate.

Well, I am here to share my experience with you and to inform you that it is not a bad experience at all. I know I’m not the only one who worries about this sort of thing, so please allow me to ease your mind a bit by reassuring you that it looks much worse than it actually is.

The whole test took less than 30 seconds. My partner drove me to the drive-through testing site. When we got there, I showed my photo ID and rolled down the window. The nurse explained what was going to happen and asked me to lean my head back against the headrest and relax. I’ll admit, when someone asks me to relax, it doesn’t exactly make me feel relaxed, but it does help to stay calm. On the count of three, the nurse stuck the swab into my right nostril and just…kept…going. It is a really strange feeling, but it doesn’t hurt much. You know the feeling when you really have to sneeze, how your nose kind of burns? That’s exactly what this felt like — a tickling sensation in the back of my nose. When the swab was removed, I coughed a few times, blew my nose and felt back to normal.

The test probably only took 5-10 seconds, and the anticipation was about 100 times worse than the actual thing…which is always how things go, in my experience. I found that closing my eyes, bringing a stuffed animal, and squeezing my partner’s hand helped keep me calm during the process. I am quite squeamish about any medical procedures involving the face, so if I can get through this, anybody can!

If you go on the Internet you can find a variety of COVID test horror stories about how awful it was. Although I’m not discounting anybody’s experience, it’s important to remember that people often exaggerate to make the story more interesting. For the vast majority of people, the test will be smooth, quick and easy. I worried more than was necessary, so if you’re about to be tested for COVID yourself, I hope this can help ease your mind.

A Clearer Future

by Beth Royston

Well, I received my news. For those of you who read my previous post Learning to be Comfortable with the Uncomfortable, I wrote that I felt like I was spiraling, unanchored, waiting for decisions and news that would help me shape what my life was going to look like next year. A few weeks ago, both my partner and I found out that we didn’t get into our chosen graduate program. Honestly, I was devastated. I had wanted to get into that program since I started college, and it felt crushing to receive that news. However, I’ve spent the few weeks afterwards in a state of odd peace, which I didn’t imagine I would obtain. 

I’ve done a lot of thinking and realized that while I would have loved to go, this decision may be for the best. My partner and I have both had a rough time with online school, and as we near graduation, we’re both feeling pretty burnt out. A break sounds nice right about now. We’ve also spent the past four years on part-time wages, and being able to find full-time jobs and actually have some savings will be great. We also have become really interested in buying a car, and that would probably be really difficult on our current funds. It’s actually achievable next year with the chance to work full-time, and getting some more experience in our chosen fields is never a bad thing. 

I was introspective and realized that I was so averse to taking another gap year because I’d already taken one —and it was a bad experience. I first decided to take a gap year in between high school and college, and moved from California immediately  after graduation. I had no friends in Portland, and lived alone. I was really lonely without my pets for the first time. I loved my job and saved up a lot of money working there, but I didn’t really do much else other than work. I was incredibly depressed, and understandably didn’t want to repeat that. But I’m in a much different position now than I was then. My life is fulfilling, and I have a lot of hobbies and people around me that bring me joy. There’s so many things that I’m looking forward to doing now that I’ve lived in Portland for five years and have regular favorite spots. Of course it’s normal for me to be upset about not getting in, but I’ve been really pleased to come to peace with it, and realize the many silver linings that are appearing. I’m feeling optimistic about maybe getting my novel publishing-ready this year, and I really want to try taking my online business to a convention! A year of resetting sounds pretty great right about now, with how awful this year has been. We’ll both apply again next year, but it feels like a lot of pressure is off. I’m mostly grateful to just have an answer, so I can begin formulating a picture of what next year will look like. 

A New Fit Experience

by Beth Royston

Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to try something I’d always been curious about — working with a personal trainer. I was fortunate enough to try purchasing sessions with a personal trainer from campus Rec, with the hopes that I could get assistance developing an at-home routine that would help me get a little more fit. Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t playing sports anymore and I’ve never been a fan of running. I was hoping that being able to exercise in my garage with someone to motivate me would be a novel experience that would be just what I needed.

Looking back on my sessions, I am definitely glad that I tried it. It’s a lot easier for me to stay motivated if I have someone to check in with, and I was grateful that I could ask questions and figure out what reasonable goals were with a professional. Before I committed to purchasing sessions, I was able to meet with my trainer to discuss my goals, and feel out if it was a good fit. I think it helped me to have clear goals, like something that I could easily fit into my busy day, but my trainer was able to help me clarify those goals even more and get specific. Finding relatively short but intense workouts that I could do at home helped me minimize the personal excuses that I’ve always come up with — I don’t have enough time, or I don’t want to go to the gym, et cetera. I also did realize that I think I honestly prefer sports as my form of exercise. I’m just not a big gym person, and while working out at home is definitely better, sometimes it still feels a bit too similar. I’m definitely going to keep up the workout routine that I developed up until the pandemic is over, but I’m looking forward to being able to join a sport again and have that be my go-to. I would say overall that I recommend the experience if you can try it and do want to check it out! 

Urban Honors as a Music Major

By: Ragan Love

As someone who always likes to push myself academically, I applied for the Urban Honors program. It was a way for me to challenge myself in something that didn’t involve music. Luckily, I have a friend who is a year ahead of me who answered my many questions. How the program worked, how they liked the courses, what they were learning? They were also able to tell me the differences between University Studies and the Urban Honors program.

If you are not familiar with University Studies or the Honors program, this is PSU’s general education pathway for all majors. Many traditional universities require a certain amount of math, science, and social studies credits even if they do not relate to your future career. With University Studies, you still get the basic general education, but in a more discussion friendly way. There are many different topics that you get to pick including power and imagination, the city of Portland, sustainability, and more. These discussions allow students to learn in the real world rather than a textbook.

Since I am not a University Studies student, I don’t have any personal thoughts on those classes but here is a resource to learn more about it!

https://www.pdx.edu/university-studies/

The Urban Honors program has the same idea but is a little more tailored. At the end of your four years, you will write a thesis in your focus area and the three years prior to that give you the skills to prepare that thesis. You learn how to write different academic papers, how to analyze and research for a thesis, and you also have real life experience before you graduate.

This is what drew me to the honors program, the fact that I could have the opportunity to work in my discipline before diving into the real world. One of the ambassadors that I met from the program was an English major who was able to get an internship at a publishing company. I was very excited to see what I could do in these future classes and for the baccalaureate thesis. 

University Honors has improved my writing skills so much. I have been able to write papers that are looked at as academic articles rather than regular assignments. As a freshman, the honors community was a fantastic way to meet new people. The ‘honors dorm’ is a smaller community so you are able to really get to know all of the students you live with. I have also been able to create an independent research study that would fill in as my junior credits. I have set up a project with my music advisor where I will spend my time analyzing different pieces from female composers. 

One thing that I have struggled with is scheduling my music classes with honors classes because there is always a conflict. My first year, there was only one out of the ten honors classes I could take and it was with a professor that I knew I wouldn’t be that successful with. Their teaching style does not go with my learning style and it was hard for me to understand some of the comments he gave me because his thoughts were so complex. This second year, I have run into even more conflicts as every class I needed to take was at the same time as my required music classes. I asked an advisor if the classes would differ the next term and they told me that it was unlikely. 

Luckily, with remote learning my band class was shifted to small ensembles, having Zoom meetings once a week so I was able to get around that. There was also a conflict with my required noon concert course, but again with COVID I was able to take that course asynchronously. I saw that for winter term I would have the same conflicts so I registered for the two other 200 level honors courses I needed. At this time I was not sure if we would be remote for this upcoming term so I didn’t want to take the chance of overlapping happening with on-campus classes. Adjusting to remote classes during COVID has been a challenge, but in the end it allowed me to balance the demands of being a music major with my honors classes.

Portland State student entrepreneur creates app to make parking easier

Omar Waked is the co-founder and CEO of Raedam, a technology-fueld parking solution that helps drivers find an available spot more quickly. Raedam was created with the help of CUBE, a four-month-long PSU program that helps students turn prototypes into reality, preparing them to launch their product.
Photo by Patric Simon

For student-entrepreneur Omar Waked, being late to a chemistry final his freshman year sparked an idea that would later become the foundation for his business.

Waked is a senior at Portland State University majoring in Civil Engineering and the co-founder and CEO of Raedam, a technology-fueled parking solution that helps drivers find an available spot more quickly. The day he almost missed his final, not being able to find a parking spot for 30 minutes was frustrating, and Waked knew he was not alone in experiencing this. That’s when he decided to do something about it and developed the idea for Raedam.

Here’s how Waked explains Raedam: “It provides scalable hardware that collects real-time data, paired with our mobile app that helps individuals streamline and automate tasks such as guidance to parking and automating payments.”

Raedam was created through the help of PSU’s Cube Program. The Cube is a four-month-long program that helps students turn their prototypes into reality, preparing them for launch by the end of the program. Currently, Raedam is in development. “We are testing a new method of acquiring real-time data in a far more scalable form than we previously worked on. We have an IOS mobile app for individuals to use to be guided to available parking and payments for supported locations,” Waked said.

We asked Omar about his business and experience at PSU.

“The CUBE should be the first place you look to for support, help, or guidance as a student entrepreneur.”

— OMAR WAKED

How did The Cube program help you?

“The CUBE has provided a foundation for support and guidance in my entrepreneurship journey. Access to mentors with experience in various industries, a group of other student entrepreneurs to connect and learn alongside, as well as the information shared through credible and knowledgeable in the subjects have provided for a more supportive and effective journey.”

What is some advice you can offer to other student entrepreneurs?

“Anyone who plans to pursue the route of entrepreneurship needs to have conviction in what they are doing. You will be faced with rejection throughout your journey, and unless you have the drive and conviction to see your ideas and dreams come into existence, you will be overburdened and eventually quit. It will not be fast nor easy, especially going at it alone. Find people who you enjoy working with, people who will support you and help you reach the finish line. The CUBE should be the first place you look to for support, help, or guidance as a student entrepreneur.”

What’s next?

“We are looking to bring on additional members to help with ramping up our developments. We plan to deploy our hardware this year at various locations and begin gathering feedback from individuals and businesses to fine-tune our products and services to provide the best experience possible as we expand.”

“I would like individuals to spend more of their time on things that matter
and I can assure you, parking is not on that list.”

— OMAR WAKED

Waked anticipates graduating later this year and plans to continue to develop and expand Raedam beyond Portland. “I would like individuals to spend more of their time on things that matter and I can assure you, parking is not on that list,” Waked explained.

Visit the Cube webpage to learn more, or find out more about Raedam.

— Autumn Barber


This is one in a series of profiles about students in the Cube program, a four-month intensive course that is designed to prepare student entrepreneurs for launch and go-to-market for their companies.

Clean Room, Calm Mind

By Claire Golden

Like many college students and recent graduates, I live in a small space. This means that even a small mess can quickly become overwhelming because it takes up most of my living quarters. I am naturally a messy person, much to the chagrin of everyone who has lived with me. (Shoutout to my younger sister for putting up with the Yarn Blob when we shared a room!) However, over the years I have discovered that having a messy room has a negative impact on my mental health.

When I’m feeling depressed, I lose motivation. That leads me to set things on the nearest horizontal surface, whether that’s the nightstand, table, or floor. Then my room becomes a Depression Den (as the Internet likes to call it), which causes me to feel even more depressed, and the spiral continues. I suffered from Major Depressive Disorder a few years back. Fortunately, now I only deal with seasonal winter depression, but I’ve found that both conditions lead to the same result. When my room is littered with clothes (both dirty and clean), books, papers, and things everywhere, it doesn’t help my mind feel any less like a disaster.

It feels impossible to clean up a Depression Den, so sometimes you might have to ask for help. I lived with my parents during college and my mom would offer to keep me company while I cleaned. This prevented me from getting distracted with various knick-knacks and books and also gave me some moral support. Now that I live with my boyfriend, we put on a documentary and clean together. If cleaning your whole room feels like it will never happen, then choose one area to tidy — I always feel better when the floor is picked up. Or, set a timer for a manageable amount of time. Even five minutes of cleaning is better than nothing.

Ideally, I would take a few minutes every day to tidy up, but my mind just doesn’t work like that. So I tidy when I feel capable, and create impossibly tall stacks of books when I don’t. I’m far from perfect, and the state of my room reflects that. In the end, you have to do what works best for you. But I encourage you to set aside a few minutes to care for yourself by making your living space calmer. It might just help brighten your mood, too.

A Wonderful Winter

by Beth Royston

I wrote a post previously on my favorite autumn activities (see: An Aspirational Autumn). I thought I’d continue the series by logging some of my favorite winter activities! It’s definitely been more of a secluded winter with the pandemic, but I’ve been pleased to find out that I can still carry out some of my plans. So without further ado, here are some of my best recommendations to carry you through these chilly months.

Check out the Portland Winter Light Festival!

Held every year in early February, the Winter Light Festival is a glorious assembly of light displays and art. It’s usually spread out through different locations in the city. This year, the Festival took the form of separate installations around the city. I unfortunately didn’t make it out to see the art this year, but I’ve gone in the past, and I absolutely recommend it! Check out their website linked here.

See Zoo Lights!

If you love going to the zoo, check it out in a new fashion with Zoo Lights! Held around the holiday season, this event at the Oregon Zoo takes place in the evening. While most of the animals are asleep, you can see brilliant and cute light displays, and the infamous tunnel of lights which is a worthy photo-op. They have many food carts still open, so you can still get a warm beverage and a snack. I definitely recommend checking it out at least once.

Venture out into the snow!

I was beyond thrilled to have snow this year on Valentine’s Day weekend. If you also enjoy the snow, I definitely recommend making the most of it! You can have a snowball fight, build a snowman, or simply take a lovely winter walk. My fiancee and I walked to our local park, found a hill, and tossed ourselves down it on our stomachs like penguins since we didn’t have sleds. It was so much fun, but be careful if you’re out in the snow not to slip! If you don’t have any good footwear, you can purchase snap-on treads for your shoes that will vastly increase your traction in the ice. 

Try taking a trip to the coast/sea lion caves

You may not find this enjoyable if you dislike winter weather, but if you don’t mind it, take a trip to the Oregon coast. During the off season, the beaches are pretty vacant, and hotel rates tend to be lower. My partner and I went in December, and we absolutely loved how quiet it was. The scenery at the beach was still gorgeous. Neither of us are huge sunning-yourself beach people anyway, so we didn’t mind at all. Also, consider heading down south to Florence to visit the sea lion caves, which are the largest sea caves in North America! Unfortunately, they closed this year due to the pandemic, but it’s a bucket list item of mine to go. The best time to go is during the winter, when the sea lions huddle inside the cave to stay warm.

However you spend your winter, I hope it’s safe, warm, and fun! 

The Roommate Experience

By: Ragan Love

I have now done both types of living in college– dorm living and being off campus in my own apartment. I have enjoyed both and the memories I have made along the way, but I wish someone had been real with me about the positives and negatives that come with living with new people. 

My freshman year I stayed in Epler hall with one roommate. The layout of the room had room for two double beds, a kitchenette, and a bathroom, similar to the rooms in Broadway. Because I didn’t know anyone at PSU, I asked for a roommate to be picked randomly. I remember filling out the questionnaire saying how I like to be lively and around people, go to bed late/ wake up early, and like things tidy. I was paired with a sweet girl named Sophia and I am so glad I got her as a roommate. We got along well and we had a good routine together. 

She is still someone I talk to now, but when you fill out a roommate questionnaire, they can’t check all of your boxes. Sophia had family that lived in Portland so she would go home every weekend for dinner and I would have the place to myself. This would be great for some people, but I am someone who needs interaction for their mental health. So when I had multiple days alone, I would struggle to just get out of bed. When I saw this happening I looked into getting an emotional support animal (or ESA), but unfortunately, Sophia was allergic so I wouldn’t be able to have an ESA.

I now live in a three bedroom apartment with three other people. One of my roommates, Jackson, is a music education major too and Stacey has been in ensembles before so she was okay with us practicing when we needed to. My roommates were also supportive of me getting an ESA, so my cat moved up with me. At Christmas break, Stacey brought her cat up to Portland and the cats are getting along so well! My roommates have also been supportive of me and my family. I wasn’t able to go see my family for Thanksgiving or Christmas and their families invited me over for the holiday festivities. I have created a strong bond with my roommates and it has been a wonderful experience living with them. 

There are some struggles that come with moving in with friends. Living with someone can put a strain on your friendship and you have to be honest with yourself if your friend is a good fit for a roommate or if it is best to keep your friendship out of the household. It is hard to confront your friend on different things you would like to see in your house so you have to make sure that you can have those conversations with them. If they hadn’t given you money for the internet bill you need to be able to ask them to pay it without hurting their feelings. 

I have been fortunate to have had amazing roommates and even with the occasional issue, I am happy with the relationship I built and my experience with my roommates.

“Fake It Till You Make It”

By Claire Golden

One of the best pieces of advice my mom ever gave me occurred when I was worrying about something — my first day of college, driving a car for the first time — the exact situation doesn’t matter. I worried aloud to her that I didn’t feel ready. Her response? “Fake it till you make it.” This advice has helped me through many a scary event. 

I’ve pretty much never felt ready for something scary. When I went to my first day of college, I felt like a little kid pretending to be an adult. I felt that I wasn’t smart enough for college. Everyone would know that I was just a fraud. So I just faked it. I wanted to be perceived as a competent, friendly, smart person, so I did my best to act that way. I’m not saying to pretend to be somebody you’re not — I’m saying to act like you’re confident, and eventually you’ll start to feel that way.

Carrie Fisher put it much better than I ever could in this quote that I think about often.

Image Description: Quote from Carrie Fisher that says “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it, and eventually the confidence will follow.”

I’ve since learned that many other people felt this way, too. The truth is that most of us are just faking it, because most of us don’t know what we’re doing. We’re all figuring it out as we go along. So act as if, and the confidence will show up. Even if it’s just a tiny bit of confidence, and even if it takes a long time to show up, one day the scary thing will be a tiny bit less scary. 

If I had waited to be confident before I attempted something, I would still be waiting. So don’t wait. Do it even though you’re scared, and one day you will be less afraid.