August 04, 2022

Rachel Friend: From Linguistics to Computer Science

Rachel Friend, Current MCIT Online Student, Fall 2019 Cohort, studied humanities in college and went on to pursue a career in language and applied linguistics. She had no interest in engineering until she started to see the connections between her work and computer science. Today, she’s working toward a new career in technology as a student in Penn’s MCIT Online program.

We recently sat down with Rachel at Microsoft in Seattle during an MCIT Online West Coast meet-upto talk about her path to Penn, her experience in the program, and her advice for future MCIT Online students.

What made you decide to pursue a degree at Penn Engineering Online?

In undergrad I did not do engineering, even though that was what all of the people around me thought I should do. I “rebelled” and studied humanities instead.

But it’s always nagged at me: How do these machines work? We rely on them for our lives—for everything from health care to social to literally everything. So how do they work? It was like a black box to me.

And then I was working in applied linguistics and teaching language and language acquisition, and I could see the awesome intersection between that and natural language processing and computer science. So I thought, why not? I was ready for a change, and it’s never too late to do something exciting.

What drew you to this program in particular?

This program stood out to me because it has an emphasis on providing opportunities for people to do computer science who didn’t have that chance before. It felt very accessible to me. I didn’t feel uncomfortable being a mother, being older, being in a third career, or changing careers at this age. It’s an accepting and diverse environment with all types of people, and I felt like I fit in.

Have you found through your courses and the community that the diversity of backgrounds is helpful to the program? How has that diversity helped your education?

We learn so much from diversity. For example, this summer, I’m doing the AWS SPARC project. It’s been an awesome experience. There are four of us on our team, and we all come from incredibly different backgrounds—which is essential, because we’re each a different piece of the puzzle. It’s truly collaborative in that sense that we’re bringing different skills and expertise to the table.

How is Penn Engineering Online helping prepare you for your future career?

The projects and assignments are in depth, so I feel confident in what I’m learning. Being a TA has been an exceptional part of that as well. Learning how to teach someone something helps you learn it more thoroughly.

The program has also opened up so many ideas for me. I came into it with a narrow concept that I was going to do natural language processing. But each course is like its own program in itself. It has opened up this whole other world and showed me possibilities out there that I didn’t even know existed.

What advice would you give prospective students as they start looking into Penn Engineering Online?

The program fits everyone because you can go full time and get it done in two years like a traditional master’s student, you can go one class at a time, or you can do one and then three. You make it work for you.

And you can absolutely find your place in this program. Whether it’s through side projects, working as a TA, or participating in MOSA, you can get involved in whatever ways interest you.

What are some aspects of the program that surprised you?

It’s incredible that these world-class professors make themselves so available to us. I’ve always had really great interactions with professors answering questions and being very patient.

Also, it’s amazing how they’ve taken an online program and created so many opportunities for community. And it’s incredible that you can get an Ivy League education from your home. You can be a parent, you can work full time—and the program will work for you.

What is your favorite aspect of the program?

Being a TA has been a wonderful experience. I wanted to apply to be a TA after the first class, but I felt uncomfortable because I thought the TAs knew so much more than I did. But then a TA who has three kids and a full-time job told me her story, and I knew I could do it. So I took the leap, and it was so fulfilling. It’s through the process of being a TA that I’m growing my skills and deepening my knowledge.