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Two Exceptional CS Seniors among 2015 Knights of St. Patrick

2/24/2015 5:16:00 AM By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

A non-traditional student, CS senior Marrissa Hellesen never thought she’d receive the College of Engineering’s highest student honor. “I was in the dean’s office [206 Engineering Hall] one spring after the Knights had decorated, and my advisor told me about them,” said Hellesen, referring to the annual prank the Knights play on the engineering administration. “I thought, ‘That’s something I’ll never have.’”

Matthew Dierker and Marrissa Hellesen are 2015 Knights of St. Patrick. Photo by Priten Vora.
Matthew Dierker and Marrissa Hellesen are 2015 Knights of St. Patrick. Photo by Priten Vora.
Matthew Dierker and Marrissa Hellesen are 2015 Knights of St. Patrick. Photo by Priten Vora.

On March 14, though, Hellesen and fellow CS senior Matthew Dierker will be among the 12 engineering students inducted as Knights of St. Patrick, an honor that recognizes leadership, excellence in character, and exceptional contributions to the college and its students.

A community college transfer student, Hellesen initially struggled with the transition to Illinois. But with the support of Assistant Dean Ivan Favila, her own perseverance, and a switch of majors—from physics to CS—Hellesen has thrived at Illinois.

Wanting to help other transfer students, Hellesen has served as a teaching assistant for Engineering 300, a required introductory course, for three semesters. “Illinois is ten times harder than a community college and the difficulty is immediate,” Hellesen explained. “A lot of transfer students aren’t prepared for that. It’s been very meaningful for me to be able to help students with the transition so they can avoid some of the pitfalls that I encountered.”

During her summers, she has worked as a counselor for the CS @ ILLINOIS Girls Engaged in Math & Science (GEMS) middle school camp and taught computer programming at the Campus Middle School for Girls on campus.

A native of Sugar Land, Texas, Dierker has also made major contributions to the college. In 2014, he led a team of nearly 200 staff and volunteers in organizing the first HackIllinois, a student-run event that attracted more than 750 students from 25 colleges and universities for 36 hours of fun yet intense, CS-related competition.

One of those staff was Hellesen, who directed the HackIllinois corporate sponsorship efforts, which raised $175,000. “I’m proud of my work with HackIllinois, but seeing this year’s volunteers pick up on what we started and taking over is even cooler,” she said.

“We worked on this for six months and poured a lot of passion into it,” said Dierker, who met Hellesen for the first time in planning the event. “Seeing it turn out so well was pretty cool.”

Since his freshman year, Dierker has also served as a CS @ ILLINOIS ambassador, interacting with prospective and admitted students through tours, luncheons, and Q&A sessions. According to Dierker, his efforts at helping the department attract the best students been especially rewarding.

“One of the students once told me that he was at Illinois because of something I said,” Dierker said. “That made an impact. Hopefully those students will help recruit new students by doing the same.”

Currently both Hellesen and Dierker are helping organize Splash, a one-day CS conference in April that may attract as many as 600 high school students. Splash grew out of the Women in Computer Science’s ChicTech Retreat. Hellesen and Dierker are working on a small team of staff to train the teachers and coordinate the event.

In May, Dierker will join Google in Mountain View, California, working on the Inbox team; Hellesen will be working for Microsoft as a software development engineer.