With Conviction and Purpose, First Two iCAN Graduates Find a New Future in Computing

9/20/2021 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Despite the challenges of welcoming a first cohort into the Illinois Computing Accelerator for Non-specialists during a pandemic, professor Tiffani L. Williams applauds Azhar Karypbayeva and Jackson Ward as they start graduate school at Illinois CS.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

In January 2020, Tiffani L. Williams joined the Illinois CS faculty as a Teaching Professor and Director of Onramp Programs with a vision in mind for the Illinois Computing Accelerator for Non-specialists (iCAN).

As an Illinois CS Teaching Professor and Director of Onramp Program, Tiffani L. Williams oversees the iCAN program. Her goal is to broaden participation in computing through the belief that anyone can learn computer science, regardless of background.
Illinois CS Teaching Professor and Director of Onramp Programs, Tiffani L. Williams, recently accepted a new position in addition to her current responsibilities. Williams began as a Dean's Fellow in Inclusion, Belonging, and Engagement with The Grainger College of Engineering.

Williams knew that iCAN could be different than other options for professionals looking to break into computing. It was going to welcome non-computing college graduates into a hands-on, in-person program.

This specific concept did not include an interruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the design to shift to a digital-only, remote learning experience for the first cohort of seven students.

“The challenges we faced a year ago were getting the iCAN program started by creating a curriculum and recruiting students to join the program during a pandemic,” Williams said. “The goal of iCAN is to broaden participation in computing and one way we strive to do this is through an innovative curriculum and individualized instruction for each student.”

Two students from the first iCAN cohort, Azhar Karypbayeva and Jackson Ward, epitomize the program’s mission. Each has now completed iCAN, applied to, gained acceptance and enrolled in the Master of Computer Science (MCS) program at Illinois CS. Both credit their new futures in technology to the vision of iCAN, built by Williams with fellow Illinois CS professor, Yael Gertner.

The faculty, however, believe that the program’s success stems from the capability of each student to push their own boundaries.

“I’m of the mindset that you can learn computer science regardless of your previous background. For success in the iCAN program, the bigger questions are why do you want to learn computing fundamentals and how will you make space in your life to succeed? From the very beginning, Azhar and Jackson remained clear about their interest in computing and made space in their lives to be successful,” Williams said.

Azhar Karypbayeva: ‘It proved to me that I can’

Coming into iCAN, Karypbayeva struggled with a sense of belonging during a year in which she worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she did enjoy many aspects of her work as a structural engineer.

Azhar Karypbayeva was a structural engineer before her interest in computing inspired a life change. Now, she is an iCAN graduate and current graduate student enjoying a "culture of caring" here at Illinois CS.
Azhar Karypbayeva was a structural engineer before her interest in computing inspired a life change. Now, she is an iCAN graduate and current graduate student enjoying a "culture of caring" here at Illinois CS.

With an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Nazarbayev University in her home country of Kazakhstan and a master’s in Structural Engineering from Columbia University, her first full-time job provided a great outlet for critical and analytical thinking. It also provided her an opportunity to interact with different software pieces.

Considering she liked the efficiency that technology offered, Karypbayeva often found herself trying software to fine-tune a process.

This soon became one of her favorite parts of the job, which provided an incentive to begin learning something new. Her first steps toward learning to code included a few courses online via Coursera. But Karypbayeva said she didn’t enjoy learning that way. She wasn’t as engaged as she wanted to be, as it seemed distant and more surface level.

In discussing this with a friend of hers, a current University of Illinois student, she was first introduced to the idea of iCAN.

“I loved that iCAN’s curriculum and course structure went beyond just teaching you how to code,” Karypbayeva said. “It offered courses in the fundamentals of computer science, algorithms and other areas that built off technical skills to show you the impact you could actually make by practicing computing. A ton of bootcamps out there teach you to code; I appreciated the way iCAN pushed you further.”

But the most important aspect of the program, Karypbayeva said, was the “culture of caring” she encountered at Illinois CS.

Williams scheduled study sessions with the students and Gertner offered regularly scheduled personal check-ins. Despite working remotely during the pandemic, Karypbayeva also said every student in the first cohort remained incredibly engaged throughout. Additionally, she said, that department staff was always there to help, a presence she greatly appreciated.

The entire experience transformed her, providing confidence in computing fundamentals while also preparing her for next steps.

“This all came together for me in a really great summer,” Karypbayeva said. “We had to take a 400-level CS course, which is a senior undergraduate or graduate student level course. Success in that class reinforced my decision to continue toward my masters.

“iCAN proved to me that I can have a bright future in computing.”

Jackson Ward: ‘Is this real?’

Meanwhile, Ward’s path prior to iCAN took place miles from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. And it led him directly into teaching.

Jackson Ward was a high school math teacher before graduating from the iCAN program. He now feels confident pursuing graduate school interests in AI, interactive computer graphics or data mining.
Jackson Ward was a high school math teacher before graduating from the iCAN program. He now feels confident pursuing graduate school interests in AI, interactive computer graphics or data mining.

Graduating from Illinois State University, Ward earned a bachelor’s in Mathematics Teacher Education. While content with a future in teaching before iCAN, Ward did feel that his path had been somewhat predetermined.

“Both of my parents teach, so I felt like I had to be a teacher. They never pressured me to do it or anything, it just seemed like the logical thing to do,” Ward said.

At ISU, Ward said he did a little bit of research, dabbling in graph theory. Interested by that experience, he took a tech tools class that helped students without any background in formal languages use software tools to teach geometry.

While he enjoyed his two years as a math teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School, Ward could tell something was pulling him toward computing. The gratification he received helping students understand math didn’t quite measure up to his own aspirations of furthering a future in technology.

So, he went online to see what degree requirements were like at Illinois CS, when he came across a banner promoting the iCAN program.

“I couldn’t believe that something so exactly matching what I was looking for was the first thing I saw,” Ward said. “I remember asking myself, ‘Is this real?’”

Echoing Karypbayeva’s thoughts about the welcoming and helpful faculty and instructors who created the iCAN program and taught the courses, Ward also found the year-long computing accelerator fulfilling.

“So much went into making iCAN the right program for me,” Ward said. “The professors, first and foremost, were more than willing to meet with me if I had any questions. Most importantly, I took as much as I possibly could from the program, and now I’m excited about my next steps as a graduate student with Illinois CS.”

Ward knew all along that he wanted to build off the iCAN experience to enter the MCS program. Now, the only question left is for him to choose an area of specialization.

“The bridge between the two programs works perfectly, too, because now I can spend the next year taking a lot of different types of courses to find which area best suites me. I’m most interested in artificial intelligence, interactive computer graphics and data mining,” Ward said.

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This story was published September 20, 2021.