School of Computer Science senior Wenxin (Freda) Ding always dreamed of being a teacher. And while she's majoring in computer science and math — not teaching — her dedication to helping others ranks high among the reasons she's earned the 2019 Mark Stehlik SCS Alumni Undergraduate Impact Scholarship.
Now in its fifth year, the Stehlik Scholarship recognizes undergraduate students near the end of their Carnegie Mellon careers whose reach for excellence extends beyond the classroom. Awardees are working to make a difference in SCS, the field of computer science and the world around them.
In Ding's case, that reach for excellence includes a resume heavy on mentoring and teaching others. When she entered CMU as a math major, she had no programming experience. But during her first semester, she took 15-110: Principles of Computing and was surprised by the power coding offered.
"I feel like when you're coding, it's like you're writing a story of your own," Ding said. "You have to make decisions about your structure and your code. The creativity that coding gives you goes way beyond what I had expected."
But she was also impressed with how much help the course's teaching assistants (TAs) could offer, and immediately applied to be a 15:110 TA the next semester. Rejected, but not defeated, she reapplied for a position the summer before her sophomore year, and was accepted. She went on to TA for 15:110 during both her sophomore and junior years, rising to the rank of associate head TA during the latter.
Ding's service to the larger community also includes volunteering for CMU's chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls, a mentoring organization dedicated to creating an outside support system for young girls and helping them develop skills for lifelong success. As a freshman, Ding regularly traveled to the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrenceville to share stories of successful women in various fields with elementary school girls. "That was a meaningful experience," Ding said. "When the girls talked about what they love and what they want to do in the future, their eyes still shone brightly."
Beyond mentoring, TAing and carrying a full course load, Ding has also performed research since her first year at CMU. Her work has ranged from studying information entropy with Assistant Professor of Math Tomasz Tkocz to investigating differential privacy using convex optimization with Assistant Professor of Machine Learning and Computer Science Nihar Shah and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Weina Wang.
Ding recently learned that she's been accepted into the SCS Fifth-Year Master's Program, and after that she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science — allowing her to perhaps fulfill that childhood dream of becoming a teacher. For now, she's grateful for what her time as a teaching assistant has taught her.
"Being a TA was a really valuable and important experience for me," Ding said. "It enhanced my entire CMU experience. It gave it more meaning for me. I realized I have the power to help other people learn."