When School of Computer Science undergrad Tanvi Bajpai came to CMU from her competitive New Jersey high school, she knew she was going to be a small fish in a big pond. The intense curriculum and fast-paced culture can sometimes overwhelm incoming first-year students, and Tanvi was no stranger to that feeling. "Getting over the fear and being secure in your own intellect is difficult," she said, "but once you do, there's nothing that gets in the way of your ability to learn and flourish."
While Bajpai says she hasn't gotten over that fear entirely, she's definitely learned a thing or two about managing stress, working hard and giving back to her academic community. Currently finishing her junior year, she's been nothing short of successful — from completing a summer internship with Microsoft to researching approximation algorithms and optimization with Ramamoorthi Ravi, the Andris A. Zoltners Professor of Business and Rohet Tolani Distinguished Professor in SCS and the Tepper School of Business.
But with all that behind her, Bajpai says her most meaningful SCS experience is being a teaching assistant (TA). She aims to not only help students better understand complex computer science and mathematical concepts, but to further encourage them to thrive and mature in the large computer science ocean that once intimidated her.
"I was definitely supported in high school — I was always the kid who never understood material on the first go," Bajpai said. "I could never have material click immediately, but I had some fantastic teachers who sat down and worked with me, so it was nice coming into this school and seeing that there was already such a strong undergraduate TA culture."
Bajpai has been a TA for 15-151: Mathematical Foundations of Computer Science and 21-128: Introduction to Logic and Proofs. As a head TA for 15-151— a position she'll continue next fall — Bajpai was surprised by how much she learned about teaching and the SCS undergraduate experience.
"I really didn't expect how close a TA staff could get to a large group of students," she said. "The students look up to you and care about your opinion. When a student tells you, 'I decided to pursue this subject because of your class or your recitation,' that's a very sobering experience. And for me, as a 19 or 20 year old, I just didn't expect it."
Beyond that, Bajpai learned more about how much SCS values facilitating help between students and faculty. "Undergraduate TAs play the strongest role in creating a cycle of kids helping kids, and upperclassmen taking underclassmen under their wings," she said. "Our curriculum is challenging. We know it's hard. But we have a pack mentality, and along with a small class size, this outlook reduces the competition for jobs and facilitates the ability to help your peers."
On a personal level, TAing has encouraged Bajpai to reflect on her own interests and career goals. "After a lot of discussions with professors, I'm fairly certain I'm applying to graduate schools," Bajpai said. "Two years ago, the game plan was to finish my undergrad, get a job and do that job for the rest of my life. But I'm realizing that I love teaching too much not to pursue it. When a student has an 'Aha!' moment in office hours and finally understands what I'm helping them with, it makes my entire week. Knowing I did something meaningful, even if it was just for one person, truly makes it for me."
As she reflects on how much she has learned now as upperclassman, Bajpai offers some words of wisdom for the Class of 2022 — who are right now making their college decisions.
"Coming into a curriculum known to be very rigorous is stressful, but don't worry," she said. "If you got in, someone believed you were able to get through this curriculum. That being said, putting in as many hours as we SCS students do can be debilitating if you don't actually love it, so make sure this is exactly what you want to study. I know that's a lot to ask for an 18-year old, but just find something in this school that you love, and once you do, run with it."