Yang, Thontakudi Earn 2023 Stehlik Scholarship
Friday, November 17, 2023 - by Susie Cribbs
School of Computer Science senior Helena Yang and recent graduate Anjali Thontakudi (SCS 2023) don't think they've met, but they have lots in common. Both women served as teaching assistants (TAs) for 15-112: Introduction to Computer Programming. They both experienced an education interrupted by a global pandemic and rose to the resulting challenges. Both have an artistic side they indulged at Carnegie Mellon University, even taking similar-but-different classes in storytelling.
And they both received this year's Mark Stehlik SCS Alumni Undergraduate Impact Scholarship.
Now in its ninth year, the Stehlik Scholarship recognizes undergraduate students near the end of their CMU careers whose reach for excellence extends beyond the classroom. Awardees have worked to make a difference in SCS, the field of computer science and the world around them.
Thontakudi and Yang both made their mark working with their peers, but also by taking advantage of all CMU has to offer.
"This award was established by two alumni to recognize a few of the outstanding students in computer science at CMU," said Mark Stehlik, University Teaching Professor and assistant dean for outreach in SCS. "I am honored that it is named for me and incredibly impressed by all Anjali and Helena have done during their careers here. They have made SCS — and CMU — a better place through their intellectual diversity and commitment to helping others. I look forward to connecting with them at future SCS alumni events to see how their stories continue to evolve."
Thontakudi, who graduated this past May and now works at a startup in her native Bay Area, chose CMU because it promised to be a challenge.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to apply to CMU," she said. "It took a campus visit to convince me to apply. I think the selling point was the students I talked to were like, 'Oh, it's going to be really hard. But it's worth it.' I was excited by the idea of a challenge."
And challenge was what she got. Thontakudi started her CMU journey as an electrical and computer engineering (ECE) major. But after long hours of soldering circuits in the lab her first semester, she changed her mind. Fortunately, she was taking 15-112 at the same time.
"I loved it, which I was really surprised about because I hated computer science when I was in high school," she said. "The professor brought energy to the class that I loved, and also all of the problem-solving skills, the analytical skills — I enjoyed using those."
With encouragement from David Kosbie, the aforementioned energetic professor, Thontakudi met Stehlik, who helped her begin the long process of transferring into SCS. But even before she was officially an SCS student, she became a TA for the course that spurred her computer science conversion — a decision that paid off in the end.
"I had a few students that kept in touch with me after I finished TAing. And one of them reached out to me and said, 'Thank you for being my TA. I got this internship that I never thought I could get and I felt that it was because I learned those skills,'" Thontakudi said. "I felt so gratified to see her gain confidence and grow in a way that I knew she had struggled to in the class."
Thontakudi made a lasting impact on her SCS classmates through her teaching, but she also left her mark across campus. She joined CMU's Scotch'n'Soda acting group — even picking up a singing role in their virtual production of "Little Shop of Horrors." She joined the Indian folk dance troupe, CMU Bhangra, and performed with them on and off campus. She wrote an article for a magazine, participated in Buggy one semester and earned a drama minor in addition to her CS degree.
Was it the challenge she'd hope for? Definitely.
"There was a lot of joy in learning how much I did, not just in terms of the content, but also the experience I got to have," said Thontakudi, who hopes to eventually apply her computer science background to issues around climate change. "I took drama classes and learned things that I couldn't have imagined until I came to CMU. I think what the tour guide said is true: it's going to be really hard but it's going to be worth it."
Growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Helena Yang dreamed of being an artist. But even as a kid, she knew that job stability was important and not always guaranteed in the arts. She discovered a love for math and problem-solving in high school and thought maybe she could combine the two into a career. At a volleyball tournament in Pittsburgh, her parents made her tour CMU.
"My parents dragged me here to tour the school and there were no tour guides, so we just walked around," Yang said. "I liked the school. I liked the architecture. I thought it'd be cool to maybe come here and it ended up working out great."
When it came time to make her decision — during spring 2020, at the height of the pandemic — CMU edged out competing universities for both its CS reputation and what it offered beyond computer science.
"CMU had so many computer science opportunities. I thought that I would be able to learn the most about that here. But it also seemed to be pretty good on the creative side in terms of art and animation," Yang said. "Current students had organized a Discord for incoming freshmen, and everyone was talking in there and it seemed friendly and down-to-earth."
Yang started her first semester from home because of the pandemic, and by the time she arrived on campus for the spring of her freshman year, she was a TA.
"I took 15-112 at home during the fall semester and I spent a lot of time going to the professor's office hours. He was always talking about how great the TAs were," she said. "I liked solving the problems and I was a tutor at the time for other students in the class. I liked doing that. So I thought becoming a TA might be fun and I might be able to learn a lot."
TAing proved to be all she'd hoped, so she stayed on the 15-112 team for another semester. Now she's a TA for 15-210: Parallel and Sequential Data Structures and Algorithms. She's found the experience benefits her and her students.
"I learned how to be a better student as a TA. I developed a much better understanding of the material by being able to teach it to others," she said. "It was also fun teaching and helping others. That feeling where a student doesn't get it and you help them and they're like, "Oh, I get it now!" That's really rewarding," she said.
Yang has been a role model through her TA experience, and she's served on the SCS Curriculum Committee. But she's also branched out beyond SCS. She's pursuing a computer graphics minor and has taken classes on storytelling in animation, drawing, making 3D models and writing. She's played recreational volleyball and belonged to the Artist Alley digital art club. After graduation in the spring, she plans to join a software company in Washington state as a software engineer.
Both Yang and Thontakudi report being surprised when they learned they'd earned the Stehlik Scholarship.
"I was not expecting to hear that at all," Yang said. "I didn't know what to say. I was shocked. As a student, I really admired a lot of the TAs in my classes, so I'm glad that I can support other students the same way they supported me."
"Inevitably, I think you have some doubts. Did I really make the most of my time here?" said Thontakudi, who got news of the award before she graduated. "Getting the Stehlik Scholarship told me that someone else thought I did. It was a nice send off to say, 'Don't doubt yourself. It was worth it.'"
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