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A Wild Ride for One Illinois Computer Science Student from High School Dropout to Graduation

5/14/2015 11:06:00 AM By Mike Koon, College of Engineering

Marrissa Hellesen is just a few weeks away from completing her Bachelor of Science degree requirements from one of the most prestigious computer science programs in the world. Earlier this spring the 26-year old was honored as one of 12 Knights of St. Patrick, a distinction given to a select group of top students in the College of Engineering. To say her journey to graduation day has been filled with challenges would be an understatement.

Marrissa Hellesen's many accomplishments include being named a Knight of St. Patrick and receiving the H.L. Wakeland Undergraduate Leadership Award.
Marrissa Hellesen's many accomplishments include being named a Knight of St. Patrick and receiving the H.L. Wakeland Undergraduate Leadership Award.
Marrissa Hellesen's many accomplishments include being named a Knight of St. Patrick and receiving the H.L. Wakeland Undergraduate Leadership Award.

Hellesen, just the second member of her family to go to college, is a testament not only of belief and determination but also of how important it is for others to walk alongside, providing support and confidence. Her story has included a lot of tears, some of disappointment but many of joy.

Hellesen’s journey began 11 years ago, when at the age of 15, the Rockford native decided to drop out of school. Disillusioned by going to class, she got her GED and entered the work force a year later. With minimal sleep, she worked two jobs both in Rockford and for a few months in Dallas for the next two years.

One of those jobs was at a tech support call center for T-Mobile, which provided that aha moment for Hellesen.

“There were people on my team in their 40s,” she said. “I really saw what my life would be if I continued on that trajectory and realized I didn’t want to do this forever. When I took the GED, I was saying I just didn’t want to deal with this anymore. I thought if I had my GED, people would leave me alone. I never saw myself as someone who was going to do something awesome. I was just there, and I felt that was how people saw me.”

Hellesen decided to take classes at Rock Valley College, and stumbled upon the first of many challenges she would face. Her placement tests put her at elementary algebra, four courses below college level. That meant she would have to take two years of courses before she would even be able to take a college-level math course.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I cried about it for a long time and then I just did it.”

Turning the corner

The decision to go back to school sparked a series of events that brought special people into Hellesen’s life and instilled confidence in a heart that was struggling to find hope. She was introduced to the man who would eventually become her husband, Jeff, a political science student at Northern Illinois University. As their love grew, they would ironically spend much of the next few years living apart.

Hellesen moved in with her now boyfriend’s parents in Palatine, helping take care of his mom who was struggling with health issues, while Jeff spent a year studying in China. After Jeff returned, Hellesen transferred to Kishwaukee Community College to be closer to him. That led her to meet another important person in helping to shape her life, Steve Dunn.

Hellesen took the math placement test again, but was still placed in geometry. Devastated once more, she called Jeff and told him she didn’t think she could do it, but he continued to encourage her. Then Dunn, who taught all the engineering courses at the community college, came to her geometry class to recruit students into the program. His encouragement helped change Hellesen’s career path.

“Steve was the coolest dude ever,” Hellesen recalled. “He came into our class, turned the desk around, sat backwards and proceeded to tell us how we could take physics and be in engineering. No one thought I could be an engineer, but he thought I could. I knew I enjoyed technical challenges and playing with the computer, but I never thought that was an option for me.”

Dunn thought enough of Hellesen that he let her into the program early, one math class short of the prerequisite. When Joe Waranyuwat, the coordinator of transfer programs for the University of Illinois College of Engineering came to campus, he invited Hellesen to the presentation.

“I thought to myself that is really cool, maybe I’ll go to the U of I,” she said not even realizing the reputation of the college.

Her confidence starting to grow, Hellesen jumped into student life, helping start the LGBTQ Allies group on campus, tutoring in math courses the semester after she took them, and eventually being elected student government president. When Waranyuwat came back the following year, Hellesen learned about the transfer agreement the college had with Kishwaukee, got a list of the requirements, and was even more determined to earn a spot at Illinois.

“I had the piece of paper, and for two years I was checking things off,” Hellesen said. “I was advocating for students, while still able to maintain my sanity and do really well in the courses. I was in the perfect environment to make it happen.”

Under Dunn’s guidance, Hellesen completed the requirements and enrolled at Illinois in the fall of 2012.

A rude awakening

“I didn’t really know about Illinois’ reputation, but Jeff did,” she said “I fell in love with this place as soon as I saw it. I knew I wanted to be here. I was really proud to even get in here and was convinced I could get all As. But I was full of myself.”

Dunn had convinced Hellesen to try physics, so she declared as a physics major at Illinois.

“I loved physics when I was taking it with him, it sparked my imagination like nothing else. I would sit at stoplights and look at the lines of force holding the light up. It opened up this whole part of the universe to me that I had never thought of before.”

The first semester was a disaster for Hellesen. Taking three physics courses, a math class, anda  computer science class, she only did well in the computer science course and was subsequently put on academic probation.

“I remember walking out of my Physics 214 final, standing on the corner of Green and Goodwin crying,” Hellesen said. “I called my boyfriend to come get me. I didn’t know why I came here. I don’t know why I did this to myself. I was miserable. I had never done so poorly on anything in my entire life. It was a huge shock.”

She met with Assistant Dean Ivan Favila who advised her to take a couple of more CS courses while trying to bring up her physics GPA. She took CS 225 and 173 during the spring of 2013.

Late in the semester, yet another important encourager, CS 225 instructor Cinda Heeren, made the decision to reach out to Hellesen.

“After class one day, she asked me if I was going to the Women in Computer Science banquet,” Hellesen recalled. “I told her I hadn’t planned to, but she asked me if I would go as her date. What I wanted to say was ‘No, I’m going home to watch Teen Mom.’ Instead, I went, and she introduced to me some other people and has been super supportive to me ever since.”

Heeren recalls her first real interaction with Hellesen, when she came to her worried that getting input from her husband had somehow been an act of plagiarism.

“She seemed a little bit beaten and not very confident,” Heeren recalled. “She was not sure she belonged here and was pretty edgy. At the banquet, I saw her as a social creature in that context and could begin to see how she really dwelled in the world.”

Although Hellesen was beginning to find her passion during the spring semester, she still remained on probation and was asked in a meeting how she was going to fix it. Having met again with Favila, she opted to apply to enter the computer science program, but was denied based on credentials. The denial letter suggested she should apply to a less competitive program.

Hellesen approached CS Director of Undergraduate Programs Leonard Pitt to see what she could do to be accepted. He said if she could retake CS 225 and 173 and get As, she would be admitted.

So her only hope to be removed from academic probation and remain at Illinois was to get into computer science, and she was faced with the daunting task of acing those challenging courses to do so.

Taking a chance

In a subsequent conversation with Heeren, she received the motivation that is still written on her whiteboard at home: “He’s giving you a chance to prove it.”

“It was sink or swim,” Hellesen said. “I may have been wasting my time and money retaking two classes for a pipe dream, but I had no other options, so I decided I was going to go for it. I’m sure a lot people thought I was foolish.”

The summer of 2013 was eventful. She helped Heeren with the Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS) summer camp and got married to the man who remained by her side despite being 150 miles away working in suburban Chicago. Not wanting to worry her parents, she didn’t divulge the predicament she was in at Illinois.

“By all rights, she could have spent the entire semester in Grainger [Engineering Library], but she didn’t do that,” Heeren said. “She did all these amazing things simultaneously. She liked teaching, and the girls loved her. From the end of that spring she had a lot of positive feedback from people who looked up to her, and she was successful. She knew what it felt like to see people come up to her say, ‘You’re amazing.’

“Seeing her interact with kids and her peers who are also teaching showed she had this affable and easy way of being around people,” Heeren added. “If you have rock solid ethics and you’re easy around people, the only thing that was missing was a little bit of confidence.”

Hellesen knew that getting involved helped her success at Kishwaukee, and she did the same at Illinois, joining Women in Computer Science and the Association for Computing Machinery and taking over sponsorship for HackIllinois. The strategy paid off. She excelled in those pivotal classes and found out via e-mail on Christmas Eve that she had made it into the program.

“When I started crying, my husband knew what had happened, and I told my family the whole story.”

An incredible honor

Being accepted to the program wasn’t enough for Hellesen, and she continued to thrive. In the spring, Hellesen helped raise $180,000 in sponsorship for the inaugural HackIllinois, and as a Native American began efforts to help revive the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) on campus. She completed an internship as a project manager with Groupon and earned the respect of her peers and faculty she came in contact with.

In an interview with Andy Gottlieb, a recruiter for Microsoft, for a project manager position with the company, Gottlieb suggested an even bolder path as a developer.

“Even though I had done well in my classes, I didn’t see myself as a developer. After all, women are project managers, not developers. But out of respect for him, I interviewed and got an offer.”

One of the highest honors bestowed to students by the College of Engineering each year is the Knights of St. Patrick. Only about dozen annually are bestowed the distinction, which recognizes leadership, excellence in character, and exceptional contribution to the College. Favila nominated Hellesen for the honor, and Heeren gladly supported the effort.

“I was so happy that he thought enough of me,” Hellesen said. “I had cried so many times in his office about how I knew I wasn’t going to be in the college anymore. I guess I didn’t think anyone thought enough of me to do that.”

At 8 a.m. the morning after her interview, the director showed up at her house to present her with her confirmation letter and pin. She was also honored as the H.L. Wakeland Undergraduate Leadership Award recipient.

“I had to gather myself,” she said thinking back on all that had happened to her and the people that had supported her to that point, including Dunn who passed away in December.

"Steve told me I could do anything,” Hellesen said. “He’s the first person other than my dad to know that I could do anything.”

Jeff since earned a master’s degree in computer science and will join his wife on the team in Microsoft in Seattle later this year, being reunited in a sense after living apart for the last three years.

“I know how much Cinda and Steve supported me. I know I would not be where I am without my hard work, but also without the people who pushed me up. It’s the people that will write you letters of recognition and mean it and the people who see value in you when you don’t see value in yourself. I’m incredibly thankful that the department saw something in me and brought me in. That’s the way it is in life. It takes the right person to come along and give you the push you need. I have had a lot of people in my college career that have given me the little push I needed. It’s been a wild ride.”