Computer science community
By Supriya Sanjay, A19
Thank you Professor Fisher and thank you to the class of 2019; I am honored that I get to say a few words here today. I also want to thank the computer science administration who made this day possible!
The first time I heard the phrase “segmentation fault” was in Dewick, otherwise known as the superior dining hall on campus. Someone behind me was laboring away at her first computer science homework and encountered this foreign roadblock. While packing up, she lamented to her table of newly-minted friends that she would have to head over to Halligan, the computer science building, for help. That was when I turned to my equally new friends and swore that in all my time at Tufts, I would never step foot in Halligan. I was on the pre-medical track, after all, planning on really making a difference.
To my dismay, the psychology major that I had chosen to accompany my biology and chemistry classes actually required me to take two computer science classes. I concocted a plan to keep up the illusion: I would take the classes over the summer and no one would ever find out that I’d seen the insides of Halligan. My first impression of it was bizarre to me now, because Halligan was silent. My first computer science professor was Dr. Strange–– an immutably upbeat, whip-smart, woman decked out in superhero tattoos. Laney Strange’s presence as an unstoppable and unapologetically female force of computer science was the reason that I decided to pursue computer science at all. And I’m sure many of us can say the same about the other professors who make this department, especially when it may seem like we don’t belong. So, on behalf of my peers, I want to thank you all for taking the time to teach and guide us.
It wasn’t until the start of my sophomore school year that I came to know the true Halligan. Always filled with professors who joke around with students in hallways, or groups of friends puzzling over problems on the whiteboard. Or of course, the one day that the labs seem to actually be the right temperature, the limitless pizza, and the growing list of app ideas in lab 116 that are somehow all variations of “Tinder,” even when they’re not related to dating.
While we spent those years learning data structures and algorithms, the world of technology had been changing. Instagram became the new hottest social network, the commercial space race began, and semi-autonomous vehicles entered the road. It seemed that technology executives could do no wrong. Our paths diverged from one another as we developed specialized interests, whether we were designing advanced computer-brain interfaces with Professor Jacob or improving an optimizer for a programming language with Professor Fisher.
And along the way, we started encountering challenges that we would see mirrored in the challenges of technology on a global scale. From Tufts leaks to WikiLeaks, we grappled with how data, when weaponized, can affect communities. We came to comprehend the limits of computation with Professor Monroe when technological leaders were forced to become arbiters of truth and free speech, all the while being wholly unprepared to do so. We contemplated the ethics of symbolic artificial intelligence with Professor Scheutz while witnessing the first semi-autonomous vehicle crash. As we learned new technologies, we watched as they took effect in the world. And with this, we seem to have developed a deeper understanding for them.
As a computer scientist or engineer at Tufts, we cannot think solely about code or circuits. This school trained us to be conscious of the big picture and thereby nimbly steer across different levels of abstraction. Our professors instilled within us the instinct to test our work to the point of flawlessness, because that is our standard. So naturally, it’s hard to imagine that we, as new Tufts graduates, would ever make the mistakes that we have seen being made. Perhaps if Facebook’s engineers had taken Professor Chow’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” (otherwise known as cybersecurity) course, they wouldn’t have allowed third party apps to abuse user data. Or maybe if Samsung’s engineers had taken ES 3, their phones wouldn’t have spontaneously combusted. It is clear to us that merely knowing how to code is not enough to pursue technological careers today.
We have woven technological successes and embarrassments like these into the fabric of our undergraduate learning. It is critical that we learn from them and do better. And by doing so, we might find ourselves doing good. As we prepare to leave Tufts, we will be challenged in ways we cannot imagine, and we may doubt ourselves. It is a tall order to contemplate the larger, likely global implications of our work and advocate for justice. We may doubt that we will successfully comprehend the notion of community on a global scale. But it seems to me that we might derive this global citizenship from a more local one. One that we have already mastered at Tufts.
Students who are not computer science majors often ask why it is that we, as a class and as a department, are so close. Why is it that some of us choose to spend twenty-four hours together during Polyhack. Or why we wake up early on a Saturday morning for a Women in Tech conference. Or why we spend our free time developing for non-profits on top of our coursework with JumboCode? Some may answer that it is because we have suffered through seemingly impossible classes together, and are thus bonded by this common struggle. While that may be a part of it... I would like to suggest that maybe it’s because somewhere along the way, we found a way to respect one another at a time when we find ourselves alarmingly divided. And yeah, that doesn’t mean that we always get along, but it means that there is probably someone in this class who doesn’t look like you, talk like you, or even believe the same things that you do, but who still inspires you. You still respect them. While it is not hard to know how different you are from them, you’ve taken the time to recognize how little that matters. You still ask them how they’re doing when you see them around and you still listen when they speak. After all, you did learn how to do something that is |hard|. And it would have been even harder to learn it alone. So although we may be thrilled to never have to step foot in Halligan again, I personally couldn’t imagine my undergraduate career without it. And I’m not really sure what kind of person I’d be without all the people that are in it. So as we go on, we may find that it is that respect, that spirit, that makes us very proud to say that we are Tufts graduates. Thank you and congratulations again to the class of 2019!