Lisa Nelson



"Programming? No way! I want to take the Advanced Keyboard Typing class!" That was my first response to my eighth grade typing teacher's suggestion for my high school course selection. But she refused to sign me up for any other class besides programming. That day was the start of my journey into the field that would end up being my passion - computer science. I took programming classes (in Basic, Pascal, Assembly x86, Fortran, and C) throughout my four years of high school in Wilbraham, MA. When it came time to apply for colleges, I was undecided on my major - it would either be math or computer science. My high school programming teacher urged me to apply to Carnegie Mellon University's computer science program. I eventually decided that I would major in CS only if I went to CMU. If I went to any other college I would major in mathematics.

I fell in love with CMU's campus at first sight. I valued the University for its diversity on campus, academic reputation, and friendly students. However, being a woman in one of the top computer science schools in the nation wasn't easy. When I told some of the male students not in the Department that I was majoring in Computer Science, they would look at me as if I "took their spot" and would give me unfriendly looks. I started to feel embarrassed to tell people my major and questioned whether I got into this school just because I was a female. I went to see the Freshman Advisor for Computer Science, Jim Roberts, and said, "If I am in here because I am a girl then I don't want to be here. Please tell me why I am here!" Jim explained to me the admission criteria used by the University and CS department to admit new students and pointed out that gender was not a factor in admittance. He then said to me, "You are here because you are just as qualified as any other student in Computer Science, not because you are a girl." After that, my mindset changed and I no longer felt hesitant to tell people my major.

As most first year students, I didn't know what part of Computer Science I really liked. It wasn't until the summer of my sophomore year I realized that I didn't enjoy "high level" programming. That summer, I obtained a research position in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department working on the front-end of a web application. I did not enjoy the project at all. During my junior year, I took classes in Operating Systems, Computer Networks, and System Level Programming. I absolutely loved them and realized that I wanted to do "low level" programming when I graduated. So during the annual Technical Opportunity Conference (TOC) held each fall at CMU, I went up to a Hewlett-Packard recruiter and said "Hi, my name is Lisa Nelson, and I'd really like to work for HP!" The recruiter immediately took out his schedule and signed me up for an interview the following day. By winter break I had accepted an internship offer from HP in Vancouver, WA.

When senior year came around, I had to make one of the biggest decisions of my life - deciding on a career. Again, I took advantage of the annual TOC and decided to target about twenty-five companies, one of them being Compaq. I knew I wanted to work for a large technical company in the computer industry so that I would be able to move around in the same company and from site to site. I liked Compaq the most because everyone I talked to seemed to love their job and the company, and the low-level programming position they offered me, working on their UNIX Advanced File System, was practically my dream job. Before spring semester started I accepted their offer.

One of the best things about CMU is that it is a small enough campus for students to be heard. While settling on a career path during my senior year, I wanted to create a community amongst the women in the CS department. I wanted to enhance the educational and social experiences of both graduate and undergraduate students in Computer Science and Carnegie Mellon. I wanted to establish an organization where women in Computer Science could speak and learn from one another. I spoke to the Assistant Dean of CS, Catherine Copetas, and she introduced me to Lenore Blum, Distinguished Career Professor in CS, who had the same interest as I in forming this community of women. With the help of other supportive students, we formed the women@scs Advisory Committee and started recruiting other interested student members. The committee was a huge success! We have 17 members as of June of 2000, just 9 short months after we started talking about forming such an organization. We discuss subjects including how to improve the CS curriculum and how to provide support for CS students.

CMU is also a school that offers an amazing number of opportunities to develop individual interests. This past summer I learned how to quilt, and when I came back to CMU as a senior I revived CMU's Quilting Club. I was President of CMU's Ballroom Dance Club my junior year, and have been involved in other organizations such as SDC (Student Dormitory Council), SWE (Society of Women Engineers), the Photography Club, and the Ham Radio Club.

Before I leave behind my four awesome years at Carnegie Mellon, I'd like to express special thanks to a few very influential people. Thank you to my Operating Systems professor, Mahadev Satyanarayanan (a.k.a. Satya), for giving me the knowledge to do something I love. Thank you Christine Furgeson, CEO of Aroma, a local Pittsburgh catering service, for being a great mentor and role model during the last few years of my college career. I looked up to Christine because she was a successful woman in a predominantly male field, a great mother, and she helped me figure out what was really important in my life. Thank you to the entire women@scs Advisory Committee - you have made my senior year unforgettable, and I am sure the initiatives will make a big impact on the computing field at large. Last but not least, a special thank you to Lenore Blum, for making the women@scs committee happen in the first place - what would we have done without you?!

To the incoming students and current undergraduates, the most important advice I can give you is, "Do what makes you happy!" After you take care of yourself and figure out what truly makes you happy, everything will fall into place.

- written by Ting Shih

  • You may contact Lisa via email: lnelson@andrew.cmu.edu