Graduates Michael Conlin, Kim Westfall, and Elaina Wittmer share why the Illinois Computer Accelerator for Non-Specialists (iCAN) program paved the way for their varying backgrounds to find a new home in computer science.
Since it began in Fall 2020, the Illinois Computer Accelerator for Non-Specialists (iCAN) program has cemented a meaningful purpose at Illinois Computer Science through the faculty and staff that guide it forward and the students that embody it.
iCAN’s design encourages students with non-computing backgrounds to find a more accessible and welcoming way into the field and to follow their passion.
On December 17 of last year, the second iCAN cohort of students – nine in total – graduated from the program and celebrated at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.
Each student came from different walks of life, held professional positions in different industries, and took different paths in academia. Each found inspiration in the potential computing could have in their own lives, and the difference they could make for others through computing.
“We couldn’t be prouder of all the iCAN students, considering the way their diverse personal and professional backgrounds will combine with newfound computing fundamentals to enrich the discipline,” said Tiffani Williams, Illinois CS professor and Director of On-Ramp Programs. “Everyone associated with the iCAN program feels honored and appreciative of the fact that they chose us as their bridge into computing.”
The following graduates represent just a fraction of the second iCAN cohort, but they also help prove the program’s worth through the transformative direction their lives have taken since undertaking this experience.
Michael Conlin: “iCAN really fosters friendship and collaboration”
A “computer tinkerer” since he became fascinated with the machine’s potential during his medical residency in the 1990s, iCAN graduate Michael Conlin found the program to be a perfect way to merge two professional dedications.
As an academic physician and researcher in Oregon for the past 30 years, Conlin finds motivation in improving people’s health outcomes. His medical career has continued through the digital era, which inspired him to leverage the power of computing to better the Electronic Health Record (EHR).
Now a graduate student with the Master of Computer Science program at Illinois CS, Conlin believes these academic opportunities best positioned him to help patients the way he has always envisioned.
“When I began medical research during my residency in the early 1990s, I was just as fascinated by the tools, databases, and statistical analysis, as I was by the research question I was trying to answer. To broaden my research toolkit, I took a course in Python for bioinformatics. I was hooked,” Conlin said.
As a member of the iCAN program, the physician enjoyed its educational components – meeting three times a week, for live online lectures, discussions, and computing lessons.
He also felt as though the teaching he received from Williams and fellow Illinois CS professor Yael Gertner fostered “a really interactive learning environment.” iCAN program coordinator and academic advisor Adrienne Gulley, he said, was fabulous to work with on any questions he had.
The only minor hesitation he had was being older than some of the others in his iCAN cohort. Conlin is 60 years old and wondered if he would feel at all out of place by going back into education.
The opposite turned out to be true.
“I really enjoyed working with our cohort of students,” he said. “We were together for six classes, worked together in small groups during class, and interacted a great deal. We are all different in many respects – career, age, location, etc. – but all share an interest in computer science, hard work, and excitement for this personal transition.
“iCAN really fosters friendship and collaboration. I consider them lifelong friends now and continue to work with some in the MCS program.”
Kim Westfall: “It's been an amazing year and a half, and I'm excited to see what’s next!”
Before graduating from the iCAN program, Kim Westfall had a hard time envisioning a path into computer science.
With a bachelor’s degree in Art Education stemming from an interest in digital design while a high school student, Westfall had been a high school art teacher and cross-country coach in her hometown of Abilene, Texas.
She always had an interest in technology, but another bachelor’s degree didn’t seem feasible.
Undeterred, she started learning Java through online courses, which, she said, “ignited a passion for programming.
“After researching various career paths, necessary qualifications, and possible degree programs, I discovered that computer science offered the perfect combination of creativity and technology that I was seeking,” Westfall said.
Next, she explored options for a few computing bootcamps, but they didn’t seem like the right fit.
One day she spoke with someone from The Grainger College of Engineering and the iCAN program came up.
“l learned the program was designed for students of various backgrounds and provided the perfect blend of structured learning and hands-on experience. I knew instantly that it was the right choice for me,” Westfall said.
Westfall soon found herself thriving in the learning environment and alongside some pivotal figures in her experience.
“Two people, out of so many wonderful people, were particularly influential,” Westfall said. “The first was a cohort member, Andy, with whom I regularly collaborated on additional projects outside the curriculum. This proved invaluable as I have made the transition to the MCS program.
“The other was the professor whose lab I worked in during my capstone project, Adam Bates. The lab experience was instrumental in broadening my knowledge, and the connections with other research students have been crucial to my ongoing education.”
The process of using research to display confidence and knowledge gained in programming and algorithms allowed Westfall a new opportunity to use CS skills to solve real-world challenges.
And she’s not stopping now.
“I've been thoroughly enjoying the coursework and research projects thus far in the MCS program,” Westfall said. “For the upcoming summer, I'm excited to work as a Cybersecurity Engineer Intern with a large defense contractor in Utah. It's been an amazing year and a half, and I'm excited to see what’s next!”
Elaina Wittmer: “iCAN stood out to me because of the program’s focus on inclusivity”
Elaina Wittmer is an iCAN graduate, like Conlin, who is now enrolled in the MCS program at Illinois CS. Not only does she study in the graduate program, though, she is a teacher’s assistant for two iCAN courses – CS 400 and 402 – providing another unique perspective on the program’s effectiveness.
“Being a TA has really been a great opportunity to watch this next cohort grow and flourish,” Wittmer said.
Just a short time ago, she enrolled in iCAN while working while working in class action law after graduating from Reed College in Linguistics.
While applying to Ph.D. programs, Wittmer’s future plans became disrupted, like so many others at that time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, though, she began to reassess the academic path she wanted to take moving forward.
One important realization was that she had become more inspired by the data science side of linguistics than the actual study of human language.
So, to continue her lifelong interest and primary motivation of problem-solving, Wittmer considered new options.
“Ultimately, the answer came down to reflecting on what parts of my previous experience I enjoyed the most, and that was, honestly, conducting research and working with unstructured data,” said Wittmer, a Bement, Illinois native. “I knew I wanted a career shift and was looking at other computing programs at the time, but iCAN stood out to me because of the program’s focus on inclusivity.
“I was also planning to move back to Illinois around this time anyway, so the timing felt right to me.”
She credits the inclusive environment created by iCAN to allow her the confidence to gain fundamentally-sound confidence in CS.
Thriving through the “excellent instruction and mentorship” provided by professors Williams and Gertner, Wittmer enjoyed a mix of synchronous and online coursework. The education she received also proved to be a gateway into CS research through a summer fellowship that included 400 hours of work over the course of 12 weeks.
Wittmer was working alongside professor George Chacko on a project measuring the impact of scientific papers.
The research led to another realization.
“I became interested in graph theory through iCAN and through my summer research. I was also able to work with large-scale citation graphs, which enjoyed a lot,” Wittmer said. “This was a truly transformative experience.”