FAQ: Cornell and the CS major

It’s around college application time for high school seniors, so I’ve been receiving quite a few emails with questions about my experience at Cornell and the CS department. I thought it might be helpful to have a post answering some common questions.

1) How do you cope with the weather?
Ithaca winters are harsh but that doesn’t stop anyone from activities on campus. In fact, Cornell rarely cancels classes even for snow storms. We learn to be prepared for all weather conditions!

2) What is the Computer Science major like at Cornell?
Cornell has a brilliant CS department and the academics is particularly rigorous. Classes involve a number of time consuming, non-trivial projects during the semester, in addition to exams. However, every class is a rewarding experience because you learn a lot.

3) Given the rigour of the academic program, do students find time for extra-curricular activities, without it being too stressful?
This varies from person to person. I know people who take more than 20 credits regularly and still make time for 2 or 3 clubs on campus. I also know people for whom balancing 15 credits with other activities is stressful enough.
It really depends on personal priorities. In my freshman and sophomore years, I was involved in some theatre and journalism on campus, but now I’m prioritizing more CS related work. I’m a teaching assistant for a CS class and I’ve been doing research with a professor. I don’t find time for theatre or journalism anymore. We have a wide range of activities to choose from, but we have to prioritize our interests because we do have high academic workloads. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it helps you grow in depth, rather than breadth.

4) The CS major is so large. Are professors still accessible to students?
If students are busy, the professors are even busier. In addition to teaching large classes, they have their research, phd students and other departmental work to manage! And let’s not forget that they have families and regular lives as well. Yet, all my professors so far have been very willing to talk to students personally. The student does have to make an effort to go to office hours or contact the professor. To share a personal experience –
Because I did research in the CS department over the summer, I got to know some of my professors better than I would have otherwise. I even got to attend dinners at their homes and know them beyond a classroom/workplace relationship.

5) Are classes graded on a curve?
Yes, large classes are graded on a curve. But it’s not as mechanical a process as it seems. Although the numbers matter most, the course staff does consider improvement over the semester and is generally forgiving about one bad exam or assignment.

6) What are the opportunities for internships/jobs?
On-campus recruiting happens almost throughout the year. Particularly at the beginning of semesters, there are interviews happening every day! Cornell’s CS program is very reputed and there is no dearth of tech recruiters from leading companies and start-ups as well.

I covered the CS major related questions in this post, and I’ll try to do more of these posts in the future to answer general questions as well. I hope it helps!

A Mixed Bag of Classes

It felt like summer had just begun, but I was already preparing for the first day of classes. After trying a bunch of classes and estimating my expected workload for the semester, I have settled on the following classes. I’m glad that I have a great mix of classes – technical, liberal arts and practical.

1) CS 4410 – Operating Systems
It’s the last core course for the CS major. The class attempts to demystify operating systems through some essential abstractions and simple models. There is a 2-credit practicum class that comes along with this, which is notorious for its workload. Initially, I was planning on taking the practicum as well. In class, our professor was explaining the project schedule and said, “The next three weeks are going to be very intense because you’ll have two projects due, but after that it will be just intense.” Yesterday, I re-evaluated my time commitments and decided to drop the prac.

2) CS 4860 – Applied Logic
Last semester, I took a class on set theory so I would be well prepared to take this class. I’m not sure what the applied part of the class is, but I’m excited to learn about formal logic. Professor Anil Nerode, one of the founding members of Cornell’s CS department, is teaching this class. Cornell CS was the fourth CS department in any university around the world; it recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. So Professor Nerode is old. He is old enough to have worked with Kurt Godel and met Von Neumann. His lectures are somewhat confusing, but they are worth attending for his anecdotes which feature several heroes of Math and CS.

3) CS 4999 – Independent Research
I’m continuing the research I was working on over the summer, with Professor Nate Foster. I have barely done anything for it since the beginning of the semester. In fact I have made the opposite of progress by breaking my local environment for developing the project. Lack of time for research is one reason I decided to drop OS prac.

4) LATA 4011 – Student Community Partnership in Ecuador
This is the class that I’ve been most excited about! As part of this class, I will be going to Ecuador in Winter break. We have had one guest lecturer so far and it was an enlightening lecture/workshop on critical reflection. You can read more about this on my class blog.

5) HIST 2749 – Mughal India and the Early Modern World
Although the class is about Mughal India’s (1500-1800) place in the world at its time and its encounters with people beyond the Indian subcontinent, the bottomline is “how to think about history”. So far, history has always been a bunch of assumptions,facts,events and causes and effects of these events. In this class, it’s about critically analyzing history as it is presented to us. Who wrote this history? What are they arguing for? What are they not telling us? What are their motivations and biases? How can we study history without imposing current ideologies and identities onto the past? History is not facts about dead people, but a dynamic story pieced together with what evidence there is.

A Trip to Consumerism (I mean NYC)

Last week, I went to NYC with my mother. She had spent about three weeks with me at Cornell and we decided to spend the last weekend of her trip in the city. I’ve lived in New York State for two years now, but I had never actually spent more than a few hours in NYC. I had only briefly been to Times Square and Central Park one summer afternoon. On this trip with my mom, we reserved an apartment through airbnb, bought a metro card and did all the touristy things in the city.

I was happy to spend time with my mother but I was disappointed with the city itself. I fail to see why this city attracts a large number of tourists. The museums and libraries are excellent and you could spend many days exploring them, but the average tourist doesn’t care about Ancient Greek art, Van Gogh exhibits and even less about modern art. How then, is NYC one of the top cities for tourism?

My mom and I went to see the empire state building. Once we were in the right location, I looked up and saw a tall building. I said, “Mom, that’s the empire state building”. We read about it in a book on the histories of Manhattan buildings. It was expensive to go up to the observation deck and it was too crowded. Then we went to Times Square. We waited for the sun to set, so we could see Times Square in all its glory.

We walked in and out of innumerable Times Square stores. The Hershey’s and M&M stores sell their chocolates in all shapes, colors and flavors you can imagine. They also sell everything from clothes to pillows and random souvenirs with their logos on them. I wondered who really wants to wear a Hershey’s dress or cuddle with an M&M pillow. A kids’ toy store had a whole section of iphones, ipads and ipods. There were many clothing stores that offered discounts, still the price for even the flimsiest piece of clothing was in three digits (in dollars). What made it worse were the “Made in India*” tags. (*replace with any developing, Asian country where textile workers continue to work in unsafe conditions and live in poverty.)

Tired and hungry, we looked for a place to get dinner. For a place that attracts thousands of people every night, there were surprisingly few dining options. It is difficult to be vegetarian, health conscious and bank balance conscious with food there. Every street had little cafes and bakeries, but I can’t call pizza, bagels, muffins or croissants a meal. Streets were dotted with delis but I can’t expect a deli to have good vegetarian food. My mom and I found Mexican restaurants diet and pocket friendly. Chipotle was the only Mexican place we found around us in Times Square but it was very crowded, so we ended up at an expensive, Indian restaurant. This pretty much summarizes our experience of food in NYC.

After a filling dinner, we returned to Times Square. It was dark above, light all around us, and there was a sea of people. As we sat down at one of the tables outdoors, I was overwhelmed by the larger than life ads. There were ad-people smiling and laughing and conveying that I could be like them if only I shared a Coke with friends, bought a new Apple product, wore Urban Outfitters clothes, watched some new Broadway show, used T-mobile service and drank Dunkin Donuts coffee. The consumerism was obscene. Why do so many people around the world spend their hard earned money to come to NYC and see advertisements on huge screens, feel obliged to buy random Hershey’s products and eat unhealthy, overpriced “food”? I don’t even see how it makes for meaningful time spent together for families on vacation since you can do pretty much the same at any local mall, thanks to globalisation.

While I was on my mental rant about materialism and vowing to avoid such sight-seeing again, my mother was amused by the advertisements and the myriad people around us. As she observed some older women in traditional Indian sarees, even Indian families we had no relation to seemed familiar to her. She was both fascinated and repelled by the women with American flags painted over their naked bodies and whom you could pay to take photos with; by people whose bodies were covered in colorful tattoos.She wanted to sit there a little longer, but it was over 10pm and our environment disgusted me.

A subway ride took us back to the apartment. NYC seems plagued with consumerism, which I most despise about the United States. It confounds me how a society can evolve to the point where it is more concerned with the quality of its material possessions than its food! In a place called the food capital of the world, I struggled to find moderately priced, healthy food. The saving grace of the city is its public transportation system, although decrepit. All of the United States seems built for cars, not people; NYC is a welcome exception here. However, I cannot argue that NYC is built for people either.

To Ecuador or Oxford?

Earlier this semester, I decided that I wanted to study abroad. Studying abroad with the CS major can be slightly problematic if you have particular electives in mind. I intend to do the programming languages specialization and the electives for it are offered only in alternate fall semesters. So I looked for Spring 2016 study abroad programs. My choices were limited to English speaking countries. After speaking to an academic adviser, I ended up applying to Oxford and Cambridge to study Philosophy and Logic. Since it’s closely related to computation and programming languages, I was able to put together a coherent application, although I have hardly taken any classes in those subjects.

In March, a housemate emailed our list-serve with information about a class titled “Student Community Partnerships in Latin America”. The class involves learning about and working with a community in Intag, Ecuador, on projects related to sustainable economic development. Intag is a “cloud forest”, with extremely rich biodiversity. Faced with the threat of copper mining which might contaminate the pristine water in the area, the community is developing alternative economic practices. So far, that’s all I know about the class. The class also involves a trip to Ecuador during Winter break, when can students collaborate with their community partners on particular projects. I was strongly attracted to this class for two reasons:

1) It pays a lot of attention to the topic, “What does it mean to help?”. In the past, I have found that a lot of service learning programs underplay the learning aspect and there tends to be an unequal power dynamic. The Intag program seemed to be exactly how I envisioned an ideal engaged-learning program.

2) I learnt Spanish at Cornell and absolutely loved the language. Traveling to a Spanish speaking country would fulfill a long-time wish. Previous participants said that the trip to Ecuador was not very touristy, although they did visit some tourist spots towards the end. That sounded perfect.

So I ended up writing a very enthusiastic application for the class as well. By mid April, I learnt that I was accepted to the Ecuador class. I couldn’t contain my excitement, until I read that I wouldn’t be able to take the trip to Ecuador if I will be studying abroad in the Spring. But I hadn’t heard back about my study abroad applications yet, so I postponed thinking about it. This week, I received an acceptance letter from an Oxford college’s visiting student program for Spring 2016. While I was glad about the acceptance and the prospect of spending a semester at Oxford, I knew I might decline the offer.

I didn’t have to think long to decide which one might be a better learning experience for me. While Oxford would be a fantastic environment to be in, I felt that the Ecuador program would widen my worldview far more than Oxford could. Although there are great cultural and historical differences between Oxford and Cornell, essentially, both are elite universities. So the people I meet and know at Cornell are more likely to similar to those I might meet at Oxford than in Ecuador. The Ecuador class/trip seems like the more enriching life experience at this point in my life.

In addition, a required class for the programming languages vector – the infamous Compilers, is being offered in the Spring instead of the Fall this following year. Staying at Cornell in Spring 2016 makes my academic decisions much easier! So I’ve decided to decline the visiting student offer from St.Catherine’s at Oxford and take the “Student Community Partnership in Ecuador” class instead. I’m already looking forward to next semester!

Intag! :D