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1,100 Alumni Strong

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The 2011 spring tutors who worked for Rick Ord, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. 
View an album with group pictures of CSE Tutors here

Computer science tutor program builds a community of students
San Diego, Calif., April 8, 2013 -- Every year, Gary Gillespie, a computer science lecturer at the Jacobs School of Engineering, asks the students taking his tutor training seminar why they wanted to be a tutor. More often than not, they’ll say that a tutor helped them in past years and they feel that now is their turn to give back.

Since 2000, more than 1,100 students have given back by serving as tutors in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Jacobs School. The program helps instill in students the department's philosophy, which encourages them to work together rather than compete against one another, Gillespie said.

Tutors work with Gillespie, Rick Ord and Susan Marx, three lecturers who handle many of the introductory classes in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. They staff computer labs during the week and on the weekend, putting in long hours to help students. They also grade quizzes and tests and help teaching assistants. Most tutors work in the program for one to three years. They are assigned to specific courses and can tutor up to three at a time.

This June, alumni of the tutoring program will get a chance to get together and reminisce about their days at UC San Diego during the program’s second-ever reunion, June 7 at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. The event will include hors d’oeuvres, drinks and a special T-shirt.

One alumni’s experience

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Taurin Tan-atichat, who was a CSE tutor, now works on the site reliability team at Google. 

Taurin Tan-atichat, who works on Google’s site reliability team, is one of the former tutors who plan to attend. Like many alumni of the program, he describes his experience as life-changing.

Gillespie at first turned down Tan-atichat for the program.  “It was a huge personal blow,” Tan-atichat recalled. “It opened my eyes to see that I wasn’t contributing to the CSE community. I did my homework, I did well on my exams, but I wasn’t being helpful to the people around me.”

He wrote Gillespie an email asking for a second chance and got it. He went on to tutor for five quarters. Helping other students was extremely rewarding, he said. One of his responsibilities was to score students programming assignments by using a detailed rubric and AutoGrader, a tutor-developed tool that performed a comprehensive set of tests on students’ work and scored them automatically. This ensured that scores are objective—and it also dramatically increases the number of students the tutors are able to grade. This was Tan-atichat’s first lesson in the importance of scaling up—one that is especially relevant to him now that he works in the software industry, he said.

“Today in the software world, it’s all about scale,” he said. “You need to be able to handle a huge number of users with a small team.”

At Google, Tan-atichat is part of the team that ensures the site’s reliability. “We’re in charge of the pipes in the cloud,” he said. “We are responsible for making sure they’re not broken or leaking. We are constantly monitoring capacity and keeping it well-provisioned to handle any traffic spikes.”

He said he decided to attend this summer’s reunion to learn more about how the program and the campus have changed since he graduated in 2008. “I want to know how I can help, how I can give back to this program that gave me so much,” he said.

Job opportunities and networking

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Tutors with Gary Gillespie, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, who teaches the department's tutor training seminar. 

Tutors have a leg up in the hiring process because they see all different kinds of codes and all kinds of ways to write programs, Ord, the computer science lecturer, said. This helps them develop their problem-solving skills and their debugging skills. They also have a better grasp of the material taught in class because they have to explain it to students who are struggling.

Tutors often land internships, and then jobs, at prestigious companies, Ord said. “It’s one of the best ways to get noticed by companies and get some talking points for interviews,” he said. “They’re all success stories. They’ve gotten jobs at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Qualcomm, Microsoft and Yahoo!, to only name a few. All of them are fantastic.”

The tutoring program offers great networking opportunities, Tan-atichat pointed out. He landed his first internship at Intuit with the help of a fellow tutor who worked there. The reunion, by the way, will be a great opportunity to network, he said.

Tutors take the culture of the UC San Diego computer science department into the workplace–and they stand out because of it, Gillespie said. “The confidence and courage students build while being tutors helps them to take risks to be bold and innovative,” he said.

Tutors are successful beyond industry after they graduate, Gillespie pointed out. Several have been accepted to the best computer science graduate programs. At one point, four consecutive head tutors were accepted into Stanford’s top-rated computer science graduate program.

Gillespie and Ord both said they were looking forward to reconnecting with former students. “We’re all eager to hear about what our former students are doing,” Gillespie said. “We want them to share their stories with current students and inspire them to exceed their accomplishments.”

Faculty who also are tutor alumni

Both Ord and Gillespie are UC San Diego alumni and earned their master’s in computer science in 1999 and 1987 respectively. Both also worked as tutors.

Ord was what was then called a proctor for Ken Bowles, the creator of UCSD Pascal. One of his first assignments was to write a program that made a turtle move around on the screen of an Apple IIe. The assignment taught students how to program for turning left and right, moving forward and back. Today, Ord gives a similar assignment to his students. But they program in Java and work on Unix workstations.

Being a tutor made Gillespie realize that he loves to teach. It also made his days as an undergraduate and graduate student at UC San Diego much richer. He knew a lot of students and was part of a community of tutors who all shared similar experiences. This is what he aspires to for his students, he said. He also has high expectations for them once they graduate.

“For me, it’s less important to think of someone moving up the ladder,” Gillespie said. “It’s more important that they’re doing what they want to do. Many of them get to do just that.”

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Winter 2011 tutors with Ord.

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Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899
ipatrin@ucsd.edu

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