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Blog Post Showcases Triumphs of CEAS Student

April 28, 2016
Catherine Clennan - mugshot
Catherine Clennan

In an instant, Catherine Clennan changed the trajectory of her college career and her life.

Her determination to speak up has allowed her to excel in computer science at the University of Wyoming, and her decision to document her journey has given her a nationwide voice.

Clennan, a freshman in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, has gained notoriety for a blog she began in March found here. The heartfelt entry outlines her early struggles and challenges in the demanding field of computer science. The title has raised some eyebrows—“Being A ‘Dumb’ Girl In Computer Science”—but that’s kind of the point. She found success in her field of study by overcoming the fear of speaking out.

The Laramie, Wyo., native has more than 50,000 hits to her post which has been featured in the Huffington Post. As of April 28, there were 133 comments to her blog, mostly filled with words of encouragement.

“My response to all the publicity has been an overwhelming feeling like I’ve done something wrong,” Clennan says. “I am painfully shy and extremely introverted, so when the essay went viral all I wanted to do was hide under a rock. The only thing that has prevented me from taking the blog down is all the support I’m getting from the folks in the Computer Science Department and throughout the college.

“Until now, I’ve felt like I had to prove myself before having a say in anything. I was never a good student and I graduated from an alternative high school, so there’s a fear that I don’t have the ‘credentials’ to deserve this sort of success.”

Success is what Clennan sought when she switched majors from molecular biology to computer science. She always felt pulled in many different directions, but wanted to get back to what she loved: creating.

“When I look back to all the things that I’ve enjoyed doing in my life, there were moments when I was around a computer that I felt I was being drawn into a world in which I belonged,” she says.

She got her chance after she took a class while studying molecular biology, Evolutionary Biology. When she came across the work of Computer Science Professor Jeff Clune and his graduate students on modern robotics and evolving artificial intelligence, it was as if the stars had aligned. She changed her major and looked to the future with enthusiasm, but soon found difficulties.

“I failed my first computer science class miserably,” Clennan says. “I just couldn’t understand a word that the teacher was saying. In the back of my mind, I could feel that the material we were learning should be easy for me to grasp and just a few years prior, it would have been a piece of cake. But I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”

One day, she says something “clicked.” She made the decision to raise her hand in class and admit publicly that she was completely lost.

“I thought about how many opportunities I lost just by not wanting to look like the ‘dumb’ girl,” Clennan says. “Before raising my hand, I felt like I was drowning. All I could think was, ‘I don’t belong here.’ After I finally exposed just how little I knew about what we were doing everything changed. That’s when things turned around and all I could think was, ‘Yes, I do belong here!’ I felt an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and relief.”

Nowadays, Clennan has no reservations about making sure she fully understands concepts prior to leaving class or lab. What followed were improved scores on assignments, and a purpose to tell her story. She began the blog based upon a suggestion by Clune, with whom she has an internship. The application process helped her examine her interest in computer science, and after Clune read it, he suggested she start a blog as part of the internship.

In just a short time, Clennan has made an impression on Jim Caldwell, who heads up the department.

"The fear of appearing 'dumb' is a problem we've all faced—I know I have,” Caldwell says. “I think the reason Catherine's message has had such an impact is that this resonates with everyone trying to learn something new. Her message is an important one for every student and teacher across every discipline. We've had extensive discussion about her post among our faculty. She's so articulate and honest in her writing that we'll be using her blog post in training departmental teaching assistants starting this fall."

Clennan wants to use her experiences, insecurities and most importantly, her triumphs, as a way to break through barriers and spur people to explore computer science.

“I want to encourage the people who are typically the exact opposite of what you would expect to find in the field,” she says. “I want to help those underdogs who have the odds against them, because in my heart I believe that those are individuals who have the potential to be incredibly successful in computer science.”

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