Christina Ernst, Class of May 2019
- Grainger College of Engineering
I had always been interested in math and science, but I was not really sure what I wanted to do with it until my senior year in high school. I took my first class that introduced computer programming and thought it was the coolest thing – just you and your computer could make something from absolutely nothing! It was so much more creative than I imagined a STEM field could be. This is what led me to major in Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering.
I particularly enjoyed the lab classes at Illinois – I cannot emphasize how state-of-the-art the labs are. And, it was so important to me that all of my coursework had lab classes built in. My time on campus wasn’t always easy. I struggled a lot with the idea that there were so many brilliant people. Did I belong in this major? But my lab classes provided a space to build something physical that could build up my confidence when I experienced feelings of doubt. I had physical objects to point to and say: “I built that robot or wrote that operating system, and it works!” Having tangible achievements to reflect on stuck with me. They gave me something to be proud of, as well as the confidence and inspiration needed to persist.
I also became involved with a group called Engineering Ambassadors, which focuses on outreach to underrepresented populations to encourage their participation in engineering. We are public representatives of Engineering at Illinois to the broader Urbana-Champaign community. It is hard to consider a career if you don’t see yourself represented and see people who look like you excelling in that career path. With this organization, I traveled to local schools with fellow Engineering Ambassadors to interact with students in Kindergarten through 8th grade. We presented on science and engineering topics, interacted with students and answered questions, and served as roles model that they could look up to in engineering. Personally, this was my most meaningful club experience at Illinois.
Now, I work as a Software Engineer at Google, on their Search Experiments team. I actually started with Google in the summer after my freshman year, in their step-up internship program. I studied hard for the initial interviews, landed the position, and interned with them every summer throughout college. I’m very happy with both the projects and the work environment. When someone wants to launch a new Google Search feature – ranging from showing videos in your search results to changing the way a link is displayed – my team leads the infrastructure work to allow that change to happen. The projects are intriguing and creative. And, in the work environment, I experience flexibility and an attention to work-life balance.
Looking forward, I am excited about the future of the technology industry. In the next decade I anticipate a breaking point where computer science really becomes mainstream. Kids are already learning to code at younger ages – when I hadn’t even considered it. I heard Chicago Public Schools is requiring students to take computer science to graduate, which is awesome! It’s also really important over the next couple years to be an advocate for people coming into the industry, including young professionals and those from underrepresented backgrounds. I want to make sure I can help them get their foot in the door – make sure the people entering the industry are as diverse as the world around us.
Let me wrap up by sharing with current students that confidence is a skill you can learn. Make sure you are taking opportunities to put your all into your projects. When you are in labs, building things, writing things, make sure you understand what is going on so that you can look back on what you have done with pride. That is what is going to get you through your harder times when you are not feeling confident – pointing back to your tangible products, and knowing you succeeded.
(Last Updated: February 16, 2020)