By Ann Kenda
Students in the Computer Science Society put their own spin on Mount Holyoke College's longstanding tradition of student-to-student mentorship with a Gigas and Megas event that matched students in their junior and senior years with first-year students, to offer support, companionship, and inspiration as they start their studies in computer science.
Role modeling is important to young women who have made the bold choice to enter a traditionally male-oriented field, according to Computer Science Society copresident Camille Malonzo, a junior from Millburn, New Jersey.
"They're role models, and uniquely Mount Holyoke student role models. It's awesome that we're at a school where students are not afraid to take risks, and are surrounded by people who genuinely want us to succeed," said Malonzo.
She noted that part of the inspiration for the program came from teaching assistants, who often set their own work aside to help a newer student with an assignment when they notice she could use a hand.
Leaders of the group did some matchmaking for the new mentorship program, according to copresident Pragya Bajoria ’15 of Kolkata, India.
"We tried to match by interests and preferences,” she said. “We even asked about favorite movies, favorite foods, and what they enjoy doing outside of class, and took all of those factors into consideration. It was a long process, but it was really worth it."
Malonzo said the program began its life as Big Bit/Little Bit to play into the Big Sister/Little Sister mentoring program at Mount Holyoke, but then underwent a name change to Gigas and Megas. The latest name was the suggestion of Professor Heather Pon-Barry, who started this fall as the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science and serves as an advisor to the Computer Science Society.
"We wanted the name to be a little bit more computer science-y and differentiate it from the Big Sister/Little Sister program," said Malonzo.
She said the first-year Megas were given some clues about the identity of their Giga through notes that came with candy and directions to a favorite spot on campus. The exercise also helped the new students learn their way around campus, a task that can seem daunting for the first few weeks.
The Megas met their Gigas at a semiformal celebration on September 12 at Willits-Hallowell Conference Center. The choice of a semiformal event was deliberate.
"We made it semiformal to buck the stereotype of coders—that they work in a basement, and that it's not a glamorous or fun profession,” Malonzo said. “We wanted to send a message that students can just be themselves, and if that means wearing a dress then they can wear a dress."
Tiffany Chou '16, the group’s vice president of community, spearheaded recruitment, matching of Gigas and Megas, and the fall gala, according to Pon-Barry.
Bajoria said the first-year students were excited when they popped a balloon to learn the big reveal about the identity of their Giga.
"I think they always want to reach out to seniors, and we provided a structure for them to do that," she said.
Professor Pon-Barry said having a more experienced student to look up to while getting started on computer science studies is especially important.
"The more you see role models, the more you can envision [computer science] as a path you can take yourself," she said, noting that an active computer science club on campus was one of the factors that impressed her about Mount Holyoke.
The new friendships will continue with dinners, field trips, and “hack nights,” which are short technical workshops where the more advanced students will share some of their programming secrets.
Among the Computer Science Society's supporters is College President Lynn Pasquerella, who sent a video message congratulating the new Gigas and Megas at the gala. The students also heard from Barbara Lerner, chair of the computer science department; computer software engineer Andreea Bancila ’13; and computer systems engineer Molly Aplet ’06, who sent a video greeting from Google in California.
The program was supported in part through a grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology's Student Seed Program. Student leaders plan to continue developing the program throughout the academic year, making changes and improvements as they collect feedback from the Gigas and Megas.
"We'll take what we learned this fall and make it even better," said Malonzo.
Gigas and Megas is sponsored by Google and the National Center for Women and Information Technology's Student Seed Program.