One of my UCLA classmates, SPW Kim Swennen, 31, tells her story. (There’s a lot I can relate to here.)
One day a little over a year ago I burst into tears while on the phone with my dad, driving to a client’s house. I’d been in LA for about seven years, was intensively tutoring math as a day job while I worked on my acting career, and felt like I was mostly just treading water in my life, with no way foreseeable change in the future. True lows can lead to great clarity, though, right?
I realized that I didn’t want to be a professional tutor. And I realized that, no matter how much I LOVE acting, some deep part of me couldn’t believe I would “make it” in Hollywood, or at least didn’t want to do what I imagined would be necessary to succeed in the biz. Acting is one thing. Being an actor in Hollywood is a totally different ball game, and a game I didn’t want to keep playing, risking that I might wake up an older woman realizing I’d spent my entire life waiting for a break that was always tauntingly “right around the corner.” So I started to think about what else I could happily do to bring more fulfillment to my life, realizing that whatever it was would probably involve going back to school. I did truly enjoy teaching, but I also knew how hard and unforgiving - and repetitive, in many ways - that life could be. I wanted to find something that would also give me some financial security and stability, as I eventually wanted to be able to comfortably support a family. And I wanted to use my brain more.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of intellectual stimulus in acting, and tutoring had been keeping me on my intellectual toes in many respects. I missed the satisfaction of solving a really hard intellectual challenge, though. I was always the “smart” (ie nerdy?) one in school - the fact that I was good at academics defined so much of my sense of self growing up, and so in some ways going back to school felt like a return home.
So back to school… But for what? Well, there was the fact that I’d been circling around computer science ever since college. I decided to major in theatre studies, but I did take computer science classes, and it was then that I fell in love with the particular mix of intellectual rigor and creativity involved in programming. There’s a clear right and wrong to every problem, but also an element of style - personal flair, almost. I loved coding, because once you’ve cracked the problem open and worked away at translating your ideas into actionable C++ or Java, you actually have something to show for your work. A program. You’ve communicated with a machine, and it’s doing something for you in response. I’d consistently come back to computer science in various ways since then - teaching myself html so I could make my own actor website, and then attending classes at the community college to learn Dreamweaver and Flash to start a web design enterprise. Throughout it all, though, I knew there was a deep rabbit hole of information I wasn’t truly going down - it just never felt feasible to take the plunge while still maintaining the life I’d been building for myself in Los Angeles as an actor.
People think actors are flaky - actually, we’re just expected to construct our lives in such a way that we can drop whatever we’re doing on a dime to run off to a commercial audition, in Long Beach, at rush hour. I always felt like there was some kind of implicit three-strikes rule for telling your agent you’re not available for an audition: three times, and they might castigate you your lack of dedication to your acting career, and then drop you. In some ways, then, we often hold ourselves back from getting too deeply invested in any other pursuit (I’d already pushed that limit pretty far by dedicating so much time and energy to my tutoring business, since I couldn’t imagine living without a certain level of financial stability). So I decided to apply to go back to school for a Masters in Computer Science. And I was intimidated as hell. Would I even get in?
Most programs I initially looked into were quick to inform me that they generally only took people who had an undergraduate major in a hard science. I pushed a little harder, though, and managed to set up a meeting with one of the heads of the graduate program at UCLA (I showed up dressed up for a professional interview, and got some great looks from the undergraduate engineering students walking through the corridors in their shorts and flip-flops!). I brought my transcript from my undergraduate classes at Yale, mostly because I wanted his advice as to what summer classes to take in order to prepare for the masters and make my application more competitive. Thank goodness I did: once he saw the hard science classes I had taken, I think he realized that I had more of a scientific background than my ultimate choice of majors (and also my previous Masters - did I mention I got a Masters in Shakespearean acting in London after my undergrad?) might initially have indicated. So my instructions were to take CS31 and M51A over the summer, ace them, get letters of recommendation from the professors, and ace my GRE Math test. I was thrilled that I had concrete, actionable steps to take, and I got right down to it… I managed to hit all of the elements of the checklist (the GRE was probably the most comfortable, as I tutored standardized test prep, but even that I prepared for like the world depended on it), and I applied to a number of schools (and aimed quite high, applying to UCLA, USC, Stanford, Columbia, and Berkeley - I toyed with MIT, but realized that might be a bit much, since they’re mostly looking for PhD candidates). I also applied for some fellowships, basically trying to knock on every door I possibly could on the off-chance that it would open (heck, I felt like I’d been doing that as an actor for the past 8 years in Hollywood, so I was glad to have some solid experience in persistence!). And then I waited. How odd to not know what your life will look like in eight months, but to know it will definitely change in a significant way - it was both exciting and unsettling. My dear and incredible boyfriend was willing to move with me, but that would uproot him and his work, as well as my established life in Los Angeles. I theoretically felt willing to change things up and start school somewhere fresh, but then the reality of having to leave my friends behind, and this city that has, I admit, started to feel like home… It all depended on where I got in. Several committees out there of people I didn’t know would decide my fate. And I had no idea whether my application would be competitive or not - would they see my different background as an asset, or as a liability? Oh god: would they laugh as they looked through my file? I honestly had no way to calibrate my expectations: friends and family assured me that graduate schools are always looking for people with more life experience, but then a part of me also knew the kind of engineering talent I would be up against.
I still remember the day I got the email from UCLA. I had basically realized how badly I wanted to go to the school - I could keep my life, continue on in the program I’d started in (I continued to take prerequisite classes after those first summer classes, enrolling through the extension and with the professors’ gracious permission in CS32, CS33 and CS35L), not uproot myself or my boyfriend - and quite frankly, pay A LOT LESS in tuition. It’s a factor I hadn’t wanted to consider too closely, but the thought of going into serious debt and having even more ride of this next degree was daunting!
So there I was in a Starbucks, and the email came in that my decision was waiting for me just at the other end of the link. All I had to do was click. I got my boyfriend on the phone, and - well, stalled. It was such a heightened feeling, and I literally had trouble clicking the trackpad. This was it. With my boyfriend encouraging me, I followed the link - and then burst into tears of relief in the middle of the Starbucks. I’d gotten in. I was going to go to UCLA. And right then and there, my future wasn’t unknown any more. I knew where I would be in eight months (well, as much as one can ever know!). I’m excited to start in the fall. I’m also still daunted, and I wish I could shake that feeling. I never remember feeling like the stakes were so high as an undergrad, but then again, back then my degree didn’t feel so do-or-die. I’ve never before been intimidated intellectually, and although I’ve thus far aced every CS class I’ve taken at UCLA, some part of my brain keeps whispering that it was a fluke. Why? Because I haven’t been coding since I was twelve, which it feels like most of my undergrad classmates have. Because I chose to pursue a life in the arts, rather than the sciences. Because this stuff doesn’t come “easy,” and I’ve gotten used to being the teacher who already knows all of the answers, rather than the student.
I need to get comfortable with the learning process again, where you’re not supposed to know it before you’ve learned it! Interning at Symantec this past summer has helped me realize that: no matter what level you are in this field, or how many years of experience, there’s always going to be more to learn, and you can never know everything. That’s the beauty of it… I think, too, I’m scared of what the French call “perdre le fil,” or literally “losing the thread.”
I’d had to abandon my math track at Yale when, after jumping straight into an advanced class as a freshman, I ended up just barely making it through. The professor had Parkinsons, so was almost unable to teach anymore, and with the rest of my courseload I wasn’t able to put in the time to dig into the material on my own and really absorb it on a deep level. When I tried to take the next class in the track the following year, after two straight weeks of tears and frustration I decided I couldn’t keep up. I hadn’t acquired the foundation I needed, and I couldn’t go back and re-take the previous class. That’s when, as fortune would have it, I looked into computer science… Ever since, though, I’ve latched on to every detail, or every glimmer of a lack of understanding, like my life depended on it. Because I fear that not understanding one piece of the puzzle, or letting a single detail slide, could turn into an avalanche and lead to ultimate failure. Thank goodness I’ve had mentors and role models to help give me perspective on it all!
Justine has been an incredible source of inspiration to me: how can I feel intimidated, when she’s willing to plunge right in there and determinedly do whatever it takes! No one is going to stand in her way, and I’ve learned from her to remember that I’m doing this for me - in the end, that’s what will carry me through. My CS32 professor Carey has also been so incredibly supportive. He never tires of telling me I’m good at this stuff and that I can do this, no matter how frustrating it must be to him that some part of me is scared to let down my guard and believe that, lest I drop the ball or let my efforts slip. But I trust him and his experiences, and so it’s given me something to hold onto, something I can use to calibrate how I’m doing. My boyfriend and family have cheered me on every step of the way, and have helped me realize that if this doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make me a failure. They’re proud of me no matter what, and this is just another experience I’m adding to my life. So I’m finally embracing what the next two years will bring: uncertainty, risk, and hard work, but also incredible rewards, a sense of fulfillment, and a great deal of learning and stretching. So… Go Bruins!