The Programmer, the Code and the Basement

Photo by Hannah Oh / UCSD Guardian
Photo by Hannah Oh / UCSD Guardian

A pit right across the street from Earl Warren College apartments. Yes, a pit with a gaping mouth, swallowing students whole as they descend into its striking maw. As you step down and walk through the door, the fluorescent light flickers and you swear you hear a growl — it has you. You hear the echo of your footsteps as you walk down a narrow hallway with computer labs to your right, watching people slave away on CSE homework, a life-draining task.

Though the basement can be a daunting place, it is an integral part of the culture within the CSE department, and diverse students come together there to collaborate and succeed.

Viera Kair, undergraduate advisor for the computer science department, spoke to the UCSD Guardian about how the CSE department sees the basement and how important it is to student success.

“We do encourage our students to spend as much time in the labs as possible because the collaborative nature of the work they are doing is really helping and contributing to their success … the CSE students are very helpful and, if you work on your assignment in the lab and you get stuck, there is always gonna be someone who is jumping in to help you and explain things to you.”

She sits across from me at the desk. Kair has advised CSE students at for 13 years, establishing herself as an experienced guide for these students and whoever visits her for advising. Her office is quaint, with a noticeable LGBT-ally sticker behind her on the wall and a cozy tea set against the shelf. She beams warmly at me as she answers my questions with encouraging grace.

The CSE labs aren’t collectively called “the dungeon” without reason; they are the places where students must fight challenging material in true role-playing game fashion. All who enter, CSE majors or not, must fight through the dungeon, leveling up as they go and gaining experience that they can take outside UCSD and into industry jobs and beyond. It might be a coincidence that, as the labs get closer to the exit from 200-280, they get progressively harder. Lower division gives way to upper division as the lab room numbers rise, and the material gets more dense and complex. The deeper you go into the dungeon, the harder the challenges and the more experience there is to be gained.

Students see the dungeon as a challenge and often feel that it takes time to get fully comfortable there. Guillermo Martin, an Eleanor Roosevelt College junior and computer science and engineering major, agrees with this perspective.

“Personally I thought the basement was not cool or fun. I didn’t have any friends in the CS courses, and walking to the other side of campus to sit in a room full of people I didn’t know typing away was not something I wanted,” Martin said.

“Initially, I was very intimidated by the CSE basement. I avoided going down there at all costs.  I only went for my 8A lab,” Thurgood Marshall College junior and math-computer science major Nicole Ekiss told the Guardian.

Ekiss, emboldened like a level 40 paladin, can now go to the dungeon with confidence.

“Now, I am quite comfortable in the basement. It’s not as great as the beach or my house, but it’s definitely a really good place to focus and get your work done,” Ekiss said. “It can sometimes even be a friendly environment for working with others to solve problems.”

UCSD’s computer science and engineering department, a member of the Jacobs School of Engineering, is ranked 11th in the world by U.S. News and resultingly boasts industry connections and recruitment from just about every company in the industry.

“We have a really good connection to industry in general, whether it’s companies in town or nationwide, particularly in California and all the giants,” Kair told the Guardian. ”They love to come and recruit our students for positions in their companies, and we also have a very good relationship with our alumni.”

This is apparent on campus, as almost half of the recruiters at the Science and Technology Winter Job Fair were actively searching for UCSD-trained computer engineers.

Kair states that the department has grown immensely in recent years.

“Especially in the last three or four years, our growth has been tremendous. We have tripled our number of undergraduate students, and also the graduate students, particularly the master’s students, have grown tremendously.”

With the increased emphasis on computers in our society, this trajectory seems to be continuing and capacities have already been met. The CSE department has mechanisms to handle the steady flow of students actively pursuing entrance into one of its majors.

“We provide regular advising group sessions for students who are interested in entering the major; each quarter we have multiple sessions to allow students to find out more about the process, strategies [for applying,] and if they have questions,” Kair said. “We have those group sessions, and on our website we advertise [those sessions.]”

Students find that the CSE department can be difficult to get into, and that perception is not unfounded.

“We hear that we’re a tough department and it’s impossible to get in, and I don’t quite agree with that,” Kair said. “It’s not impossible — it’s really hard, but it’s possible and it’s really up to the individual student how much they want to invest, and hard work, strategizing and planning are really the essential things to get to the goal that is getting into a CSE major.”

However scary it seems at first, success in the CSE department can be found in the lab: a collaborative, focused and hardworking environment. The “CSE Dungeon” is not only the dark and scary place of nightmares past, but the bright and collaborative place of a success-driven present.

In the words of Kair, “It is really an atmosphere of work that fosters good relationships and promotes success.”

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    Ayelet BittonNov 17, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    This article is pretty ridiculous. I was a CS major at UCSD, and I found the basement to be a great place to connect with other students and get help — especially with the amazing tutoring program that the department provides. This article is pretty over the top.

    • T

      Tcu35Nov 17, 2016 at 7:20 pm

      You’re ridiculous. Great article.