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Kevin Nunez and Marianela Crissman may not be sure of what they’ll do after they graduate from Northeastern Illinois University later this year, but they do know this: They’re envious of all the amazing opportunities available to the incoming Computer Science students.
Nunez and Crissman were the peer mentors for Northeastern’s Google Computer Science Summer Institute Extension (CSSI-Extension) program, a three-week immersion with a goal of increasing the number of women, first-generation, underrepresented ethnic minority students, and low-income college students in computer science.
“I wish I had the same opportunity they had getting out of high school, because coming out of high school I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Nunez said. “For me to end up here, teaching these students how to code in all these different languages when I had no passion for it in the beginning, that’s crazy.”
Nunez is a first-generation, DACAmented college student. He earned his associate degree in Science from Wright College and started working retail jobs because he didn’t think he would be able to gain employment in other fields, let alone earn another degree. That is, until a social media ad changed his trajectory.
“One day I was browsing Facebook and the Dream.US scholarship link showed up in my feed,” Nunez said. “I thought, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,’ so I figured I’d just apply for it and see what happens. I ended up finishing the scholarship application two or three days before the deadline.”
The Dream.US scholarship provides funds for undocumented students, who are ineligible for government-funded financial aid and many other scholarships and grants. The organization partners with more than 70 institutions of higher learning across the U.S. that are committed to serving DREAMers—those with protection from deportation under the DREAM Act—including Northeastern. With that scholarship, Nunez is working on completed his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.
“If I didn’t see that post on Facebook, I wouldn’t have known about the scholarship and I wouldn’t be here,” said Nunez, who now hopes to become a software developer or software engineer.
Nunez ended up taking a computer networking course with Graciela Perera, an associate professor at Northeastern who was critical to bringing the Google partnership to the University. Nunez also took programming courses with Akkady Tchaba, who was Perera’s co-instructor for the summer and, like Perera, completed Google’s Faculty in Residence program.
“Kevin is an example of an intelligent, sincere, dedicated and hardworking student who spends endless time practicing and learning new skills. That was very obvious during the classes I taught him,” Tchaba said. “He also has exceptional leadership skills that made him one of my top choices to be a peer leader for CS200 course, where he will be working with students to improve their problem-solving skills and understand the concepts of programming languages.”
Crissman also ended up at Northeastern in a rather roundabout way. She’s from Venezuela. She traveled to the U.S. to explore her options for graduate studies and happened to meet someone–her now husband, John Crissman–who was attending Northeastern and decided to visit the campus with him.
“At the time, I was applying for different universities,” Marianela said. “I wasn’t a resident of the U.S. I was a tourist. When he would go to class, I would go with him and stay in the library. I liked this place. In spending so much time in the library, I would hear people speaking Spanish. Coming from Venezuela, where we speak Spanish, I really, really liked hearing it spoken on campus.”
She applied for the master’s program in Computer Science and was accepted. When she was assigned her advisor, it was Perera, who is also from Venezuela and happened to study at the same university where Marianela completed her undergraduate degree.
“Graciela has really been a great support through my journey at NEIU,” said Marianela, who hopes to become a full stack developer. “The other university that I went to is a very technical university. There’s no warmth, no activities, no environment where you feel safe to make mistakes.”
Tchaba thinks Marianela was able to pass on the warmth and excitement she felt as a new student to the participants of the summer program.
“Marianela showed an extraordinary effort during the CSSI-Extension program,” Tchaba said. “She was passionate about guiding students and showing them concrete examples of how to use the different tools they have learned. She has impressed me with her ability to work well under pressure without losing track of her tasks. She is an inspiring student who I strongly believe will have a bright future in her studies and professional life.”
Marianela and Nunez are both peer tutors and part of the Computer Science Society Club, which they’re hoping will be more active this year with Tchaba as the new advisor.
“Akkady went to Google’s Faculty in Residence program,” Nunez said. “I think he can share with us a lot of great techniques to prepare us for interviews.”
Aside from being grateful to have been part of the first Google CSSI-Extension program at Northeastern, they are also both looking forward graduating this school year and discovering the opportunities their degrees will afford them.
“I’ve learned that in the Computer Science Department at NEIU, every single teacher is here to help you and they actually do care,” Nunez said. “The material is going to be hard—it’s computer science—but every professor is here for your success, and they’ll give you tips or let you know when tutoring sessions are.”
Marianela couldn’t agree more. In fact, she’s enjoyed her experiences in the Computer Science program so much that John ended up changing his major to Computer Science and joined Marianela in the master’s program.
“I feel privileged to have been a part of this pilot program,” Marianela said of the Google CSSI-Extension program at Northeastern. “It doesn’t really matter which university you’re coming from, it’s the amount of work that you, on your own do when you’re studying. Yes, if you’re coming from an elite university you may have more connections, but at the end of the day what’s important is what you learn and what you do with it.”