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“Sindy is graduating” (Part 1)



Bill Cosby giving the Keynote
Originally uploaded by sindy.

That’s what I updated my Facebook status to via Blackberry as I waited in the Processional. So, in additional to being a Cardinal alum, I’m a Tartan alum now too. How did I end up going to two universities that used “colors” as their mascots? (Although, CMU has just adopted a Scottish Terrier as their official mascot similar to the way Stanford has the Tree.)

In any case, I have more to say in terms of reflecting on the last two years at CMU and what I think of the program now that I’ve come out the other side, but just a few thoughts on Commencement itself:

  1. First, two years of juggling work and school plus $50,000+ later: totally worth it to get to wear the special gown (with nifty Harry Potter-esque sleeves) and gold hood as a Masters candidate at graduation.
  2. Also kind of a novelty: to participate in a semi-orderly Processional. Masters and Doctoral candidates at Stanford enter the stadium with an orderly Processional, but Bachelors candidates enter with the famous Wacky Walk.
  3. Just in case you forgot how Scottish Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon were, there was plenty of bagpipe action and Tartan plaid around to remind you. In fact, you can actually get a BFA in Instrumental Performance in Bagpipes.
  4. Gold– really a bright yellow– is the hood color for the School of Computer Science. I’m sure the color was chosen a thousand years ago and not to feed into stereotypes, but it’s not a particularly flattering color for Asian people. The irony.
  5. Instead of receiving my diploma on Sunday, I had it mailed to me. Why? Because a) CMU West graduates have their departmental ceremony in August out here on the Moffett Field campus and b) the diploma itself is apparently ginormous and it would have been too unwieldy to carry back on the plane with me. Why does it have to be so big? Are we trying to compensate for something?
  6. Sorry, Pittsburgh, but I see why they call it “the Pitt.” Getting a CMU education while also getting to stay in northern California was definitely worth it.

Otherwise, graduation was fun– there were a few showers early in the morning, but the weather cleared up in time for the Processional and Ceremony and I walked and sat with two of my former teammates. As I had mentioned before and as you can see from the photo, Bill Cosby was the keynote speaker as well as recipient of an Honorary Degree (Doctorate of Humane Letters). You might think it weird that a comedian and man who spent many years selling Jell-O pudding pops would be the keynote speaker at a college commencement ceremony, but what people don’t know or forget is that Cosby, aside from being a particularly influential and brilliant comedian and entertainer, is Dr. Cosby. He earned his BA from Temple University and then his MA (1972) and Ed.D. (1977) from the University of Massachusetts. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids were an integral part of his Ed.D. dissertation and a commitment to education has always been reflected in his work. Definitely a recurring theme in The Cosby Show: remember all the college t-shirts and sweatshirts? Remember the episode where Theo thought that college wasn’t for him– that maybe he just wanted to be a “regular person?”

My point is that Cosby was an apt choice on a number of levels and in short, here’s a summary of the his address:

  • You are nerds. Embrace it. When high school ended and everybody else quit, you went on because you’re nerds. That’s a good thing.
  • Graduations, weddings, funerals– these are big events in your lives, but graduations are special in that there are less likely to be fights.
  • Now that you have graduated, don’t go back home. Get a job.
  • Cosby told an anecdote about when he was rising as a young comedian and was given a big opportunity, he lost his confidence and bombed. In the end, the lesson: be yourself.

All in all, pretty sound advice.

Anybody can be well-groomed and wear nice black shoes

In this last stretch of my Masters program, the cheesy marketing lines I first heard a little over two years ago are actually holding true to their word– I’m learning about one thing in the classroom and immediately applying it in the workplace the next. (Well, not exactly applying it because I’m about to talk about hiring practices and I just finished a big round of hiring, but you get my point.) In some ways, this is good– I’m getting my money’s worth, I’m learning and all that rot– and in some ways, it makes me want to bang my head on my desk– you start seeing even more all the broken things around you. If you’re in a position to fix it, that’s empowering; if you’re not, well… let’s not even get into that right now. In any case, I thought I’d share some of these pearls of wisdom as I countdown the days until graduation.

This one does not make me want to bang my head on my desk until something comes out because I’m actually really happy with my latest round of hiring– it’s from an article on The Most Common Hiring Mistakes and How to Prevent Them. Mistake #2 is on using successful people as a model– basically, using top performing people as a model for success is not as simple as just looking at them and copying their traits or characteristics. When trying to figure out what makes high performers high performers, you have to determine what differentiates them from everyone else. As the article says (paraphrasing here):

A major study showed that good salesmen were well-groomed and wore conservative, black shoes. But so did bad salesmen.

In our own backyard

As the drama of Hurricane Katrina continues, I fear that somehow Americans will end up giving more to tsunami victims than those who suffer in our own backyard. I certainly don’t want to say that one person’s suffering is greater than another’s, that we should put value on one person’s life over another, but what does it say about Americans if we fail to help our own countrymen? Isn’t that always how it is? We’ll go through so much and pay so much to adopt an orphaned child from somewhere in Asia or Africa, but we won’t take in and care for the child who lives homeless on our own streets.

But there is one silver lining that I want to take note of: the way the educational community is coming together. Universities, including those I’m directly affiliated with, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, are coming together to reach out to college students affected by the hurricane and to help make sure that their educations are not severely interrupted. Despite my frequent frustrations, I have to say that a part of me is proud to be part of the higher education community today.

But of course, what about the young children who don’t have homes or food, much less a school to go to today or tomorrow or the next day? How many children will be orphaned and how many dead bodies will continue to be pulled out from the waters? Americans are certainly capable of supporting its citizens– consider the outpouring of support for victims of 9/11. While we may not have terrorists to band against in this circumstance, certainly the suffering and need for help is just as great.

The CMU Way?

I know that I haven’t written much about school here since I actually got my situation resolved, but I’ve been pretty busy with school itself. In general, it’s been going okay, but I will admit that there are some things about CMU that have been getting on my nerves lately. I thought Stanford was an administrative mess, but compared to some of the internal operations at CMU (especially in Pittsburgh), Stanford is a well oiled machine. But aside from the administrative crap I’ve been dealing with for the past few months (maybe even over a year now), I had a weird experience last night at a kickoff meeting for the second part of our current project:

A faculty member was giving an overview of what’s involved in this next task and he mentioned that we could use Together to generate some skeleton code. It was mentioned in passing really and if you didn’t recognize the word “Together” as anything other than an adverb, you probably wouldn’t have caught the reference. You probably wouldn’t have even realized that there was something to ask about because it just sounded like he was saying that we would be “generating the code together” rather than “generate the code WITH Together.”

In any case, so we let the reference pass by and in general, people weren’t asking many questions. Towards the end of the meeting, another faculty member asked if we knew what they were talking about when they mentioned “Together.” Frankly, I don’t think people even understood the question– this is the problem with naming a piece of software a common adverb. Well, maybe it was the blank looks that set him off, but the faculty member asked why we didn’t ask what Together was if we didn’t understand the reference and then proceeded to go around the room and ask every single person (about 10 in the room and another three on the conference line) whether s/he knew what Together was. In the end, only one person knew because he was already familiar with the software from his job. This whole episode digressed into a “why didn’t you ask if you didn’t understand?” and “what else have you not asked about?” scolding session.

I’ll admit that we were, in general, not a lively bunch last night, but as I’m discovering, there’s very little direction in general. Now, I’m not saying that they should be holding our hands the whole way and I understand that they’re trying to simulate a real working environment through the “story-centered” curriculum, but sometimes, there’s so little to go on that you can’t even get enough information to ask the right questions. For example, even after asking for more info, there was no real information given about last night’s meeting– all we knew was that it was a kickoff for the next task (in fact, they even rescheduled it with only a few days notice because they didn’t realize they had originally scheduled it for Valentine’s Day). After actually having gone to the meeting, it seemed like they had expected us to have gone through all of the materials for the task and come prepared with lots and lots of questions.

Well, gee, I would have had I known.

Frankly, most of the time they were looking at me with annoyed expressions at our lack of questions, I felt like shrugging my shoulders, rolling my eyes and yelling, “Quit looking at me. It’s not that I don’t care– I just don’t know enough yet to even ask any questions.” I suppose we could have asked questions on exactly how to execute all these tasks we’ve been given, but I think we figured that for the most part, those are things we need to try to learn on our own and this meeting wasn’t supposed to be about walking us through our homework.

The really disturbing part of this whole thing was that I felt like I was being yelled at. I don’t think I’ve ever been just plain yelled at in an academic setting since middle school. In an academic setting, the primary disclinary structure is grading, not scolding. What are you– my mom? If I don’t do my homework, if I don’t participate enough in meetings, if I don’t know the answer when you call on me, what are you going to do– tell on me? For chrissake, I’m a grown ass woman. I mean, take off points, give me more work, give me a lower grade, but I don’t think I really need to be flat out berated.

In any case, the whole thing was very bizarre to be in a graduate program at supposedly one of the best engineering schools in the country and to be yelled at like a bunch of little kids. Hopefully, this isn’t the CMU way.

CMU, I DO know what to do with you

More on my CMU drama now that it is actually resolved. I hope. Thanks to those I’ve talked to over the past few days that have expressed their condolences (and just plain dismay at what’s been going on).

So, after I almost had a nervous breakdown when they postponed the Information Security and Networking program until an undetermined date, I talked to the West Campus admissions folks, including the head of the Software Engineering program, and figured out what options I had left. Luckily, my acceptance to the SE program was still good back from last December (I can hardly believe it has been this long) and I was even eligible to go into the new Software Development and Management program, although for Fall 2005 (this program didn’t exist when I originally applied in Fall 2003). I will admit that even though I’m anxious to start my Masters program, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into either one of these programs. At face value, software development/engineering programs are not exactly interchangeable with a program in information security and networking and like I said earlier, that’s a lot of time and money to waste on something I don’t necessarily want. But after speaking to the department and getting more information on the program, I realized that it might not be exactly what I wanted, but I can still make it what I want and need. The skill focus is a little different and the topic is a little broader, but I can certainly tailor my studies to focus on the desired areas, including my interest in information security and privacy as well as my desire to develop more management skills. And the folks in charge of the program were very helpful, encouraging me to start the program and letting me know that they would be happy to help me tailor the program to my needs.

As I’ve said before to others, after working for a university for a few years, I am more than aware that there is very little relationship between internal university operations and academic excellence. As prestigious as Stanford is, you’d be surprised how decentralized and disorganized we are when it comes to regular operations (although I will acknowledge that the undergraduate admissions process is very streamlined and conducted very well). Simply scheduling a classroom is a bureaucratic drama. So, even with the entire admissions ordeal, my confidence in CMU’s academic strength was still there. And after speaking to the folks I did at the West Campus, their helpfulness and willingness to come to the best solution as simply and quickly as possible was really what sold me. They were very understanding of my frustration, clearly expressed why attending the SE program would be beneficial to both CMU and myself, and that because of that, they were willing to be flexible and come up with the best solution for both policies. And now, I’m excited to start the program and feel like not only will I have a good experience and learn a lot, I am welcome to the program and that my contribution will be valued.

So, it looks like the drama has been resolved. I’m filling out the final paperwork, ordering books for the new semester, setting up my computer, and more. Finally!

CMU, I don’t know what to do with you

I am literally at my wits’ end. After finally getting my acceptance letter from CMU, after sending my letter of acceptance of admission by certified mail, after weeks of trying to get followup information on financial aid, class schedules, or anything else, I found out today that they have postponed the West Coast Masters program in Information Security and Privacy until some future date. In fact, they haven’t even completely decided whether the MSIT-ISP program will ever be offered out here and have directed us to check the Web site for additional information at some point in the future.

Are you kidding me right now?

Tuition for the 2005 Spring semester is due on January 3rd and classes are scheduled to start on January 10th. (Most of this information I gathered by sifting through the INI Web site and the CMU West Web site as well as flat out asking inviduals running the program.) I got the bad news via email at 11:24 am today, December 20th. I suppose the only thing worse would have been to send me the bad news an early holiday gift decorated in CMU colors– seal it in an envelope, place the envelope in a huge gift box wrapped with luminescent cardinal wrapping paper, tie white and silver ribbons all around, and then send it out on Christmas Eve via first-class mail with no delivery confirmation and to the wrong address. That sounds about right, if you take into consideration how things have been going for over a year now.
Continue reading CMU, I don’t know what to do with you

CMU, more debt, information security, and privacy

*sigh* I finally got my official acceptance letter. So, I’m getting geared up to start my Masters through Carnegie Mellon (West Campus). Goodbye free time and hello debt!

Here’s a thing though– the program is in Information Security and Privacy. That’s right. Information Security AND Privacy. They go together. You can’t talk about one without the other. Maybe more people should remember that.