By Mary-Catherine Scarlett, BA ’21
Since its founding, the University of Dallas has rooted its identity in the liberal arts Core Curriculum. Although often recognized for majors such as philosophy, English and classics, in recent years UD has adapted to the evolving educational and technological landscape.
According to Director of the Computer Science Program Robert Hochberg, Ph.D., the Mathematics Department started the C.S. program about 20 years ago, but it fizzled out due to lack of enrollment. In 2012, after two years of development by David Andrews, Ph.D., now associate dean of Constantin College, Hochberg joined the Mathematics Department faculty. The first class of computer science majors, taught jointly by Hochberg and Andrews, graduated in 2014.
Although the computer science major may stand out as more modern than other degrees that UD offers, Hochberg believes that it complements the other liberal arts topics rather than distracts from them.
“Our students come out more well-rounded, less one-dimensional than computer science students from other, more technical schools,” Hochberg said. “Our students interview well; they can speak in complete sentences; they can make eye contact with their interviewer; they’re good problem solvers.”
Students in this major choose either a liberal arts-focused B.A. track or a mathematics-focused B.S. track. One major who chose a Bachelor of Science track is Michael Booton, BS ’21, who now works as a software engineer for Microsoft.
“It gave me a solid foundation for rigor in my thought; it forces you to be grounded and consistent,” Booton said about his major. “I think C.S. is a perfect marriage of technical and intellectual skills.”
Hochberg has found that big technology companies have begun increasingly recruiting UD students because of their unique set of skills. “Every year since our first student did an internship at Google, his mentor at Google has given a talk to UD students on how to apply for jobs at Google and other large tech companies.”
When asked why this may be the case, Hochberg explained that UD students bridge the gap between the soft skills in a career and the hard skills necessary for a coding professional.
“When it comes to putting a programmer or developer in front of a client to have a conversation with a client,” Hochberg said, “a company likes someone who will be well-spoken, can think and engage, can visualize a solution to the problem, and then can communicate that solution to the customer in a way that makes sense. Our UD education is fantastic for that.”
It is clear that the appeal of this major is spreading. In 2021, the Mathematics Department graduated 15 computer science majors, 10 men and five women. The 2021 class was the largest since the start of the program. Though enrollment dipped slightly, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UD anticipates an increase in demand for this program in coming years. This fall, the Mathematics Department will gain a new full-time, tenure-track professor, Erick Chastain, Ph.D., who can help expand the computer science program.
In contrast to most computer science programs, the courses at UD offer a more generalized education that encourages both independent learning and collaboration. Although the Mathematics Department offers fewer overall C.S. classes than most other universities, the alumni are competent and workforce-ready for many different types of jobs.
“The first semester we teach them a language called Racket, and after that we don’t teach any more languages – they have to learn the languages on their own,” Hochberg said. “When they graduate, if they succeed in our major, they have learned how to learn languages. So, when they get to new places, they are prepared to learn what they have to learn, and they do it just as well as any other student.”
In addition to expecting students to learn more independently, the C.S. program also incorporates collaborative pair work into its curriculum. Specifically, Booton explained that Hochberg would pair students randomly to work on engineering and coding projects together.
“It’s a completely different experience to engineer something with what can kind of feel like someone over your shoulder, so you get to be prepared for that,” Booton said. “We have to develop some professional skills in terms of working with people who can be difficult to work with or you don’t know well.”
Since Booton was looking for more in his career than just a job, he has found that the philosophical environment of UD encouraged him to find his purpose.
“I feel like I had more actionable ways to pursue a fulfilling career because of UD, whether it be the intellectual tools to think about what fulfillment is, or the practical skills of articulating what I want,” Booton said.
One example of the independence fostered by the program is the student-coded and student-run app “The Mall UD,” released in September of last year, which includes access to useful information for students such as the library and Cap Bar hours, club activity schedules, and other campus events. The app has a simple, clean interface and user-friendly features; it can be downloaded for free from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
While the teaching style encourages independent learning, one advantage to the smaller program size is that Hochberg provides individualized mentorship. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when all the UD classes switched to a virtual learning format, computer science alumna Clarissa Skipworth, BA ’21, appreciated the way that Hochberg facilitated his classroom.
“Dr. Hochberg especially did a really great job of making sure everybody stayed engaged in the classwork [during the pandemic],” Skipworth said. “He really tailored the program to what I needed for my degree, and he was so helpful every step of the way, making sure I understood the material instead of just checking off boxes.”
Rising senior Vincent Cavanna, BA ’23, attributes his success in landing an internship with Amazon as a software engineering developer to the critical-thinking skills he has honed through his liberal arts education more generally, and the C.S. program specifically.
“Amazon seems to really value people who are curious and people who ask questions,” Cavanna said.
He explained that in the third and final round of the application process, his interviewer gave him a programming problem that seemed like it would be incredibly difficult to solve. He ended up spending the majority of the time asking the interviewer questions about the problem, and only about 10 minutes solving it.
“And I would say that’s not something you’re necessarily taught at some of the bigger computer science universities … that is actually an advantage that the UD computer science program has. Because we know that we are going to ask questions, and that we are going to be asked questions too.”
In his internship at Amazon, Cavanna has learned new skills and primarily works on designing distributed systems, development with web services and project design.
When asked to impart any advice to students seeking internships and jobs with big companies such as Amazon, Cavanna has this to say:
“Don’t sell yourself short. I wasn’t really convinced that I would get an Amazon internship – I was just applying the philosophy of applying in bulk to a lot of different jobs and I just worked on that – and that worked.”
The C.S. program prepares students for the realities and responsibilities of the workplace while reminding them of their value as individuals. Their intellectual formation inspires them to pursue the countless possibilities that their liberal arts education has afforded them, and the curiosity, authenticity and integrity fostered at UD help them find meaning in their own work and lives.