Through a barely noticeable and rather sketchy backdoor entrance, flocks of current and former Stuyvesant students filed into an overcrowded elevator. As they stepped off at the lofty 10th floor, they were welcomed into a scene of wooden tables, food, table tennis, and a bonanza of computer science networking.
On Tuesday, March 27, Computer Science Coordinator and alumnus Michael Zamansky (’84) organized and hosted an alumni-student open house at Foursquare’s office in SoHo, with the hopes of giving current Stuyvesant computer science students the opportunity to learn about the experiences of, and network with, alumni involved in computer science industries. They also discussed the state and future of Stuyvesant’s Computer Science (CS) program.
“The students seem to be very motivated and energetic. They ask very good questions, and seem to be on a path of self-discovery. Just by being here, they’re finding out what’s the best fit for them, meeting people in the community, and exploring different qualities,” Teresa Ling (’92) said.
Though Zamansky was the primary event planner, Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association (SHSAA) board member Jukay Hsu (’02) assisted him. Foursquare employees Noah Weiss (’04) and David Blackman (’02) volunteered the office’s “Fat Nanny’s,” an informal gathering and kitchen space, to host the event.
“There’s 20 years of planning,” Zamansky said. “If you do an open event with alumni […] and it’s not a class reunion, you usually don’t get a huge turnout. But it ended up being huge, and that’s because we’ve been building a community for such a long time.”
Zamansky invited 100 juniors and seniors from his and JonAlf Dyrland-Weaver’s (’01) AP Computer Science classes, in addition to other students from Systems Level Programming and Computer Graphics. Approximately 100 alumni and other visitors, some directly involved with computer science careers, showed up after he contacted them through a Stuyvesant CS mailing list. Alumni present had graduated as far back as 1976 and as recently as last year. Dyrland-Weaver and computer science teacher Samuel Konstantinovich (’99) were also in attendance.
“It’s really nice to see that the alumni are all willing to offer these students advice. It says a lot about the people that come through the Stuyvesant Computer Science program, because we all feel these connections with other people,” Dyrland-Weaver said. “It has the potential for nudging a lot of people to a computer science or tech career. A lot of alumni were in the same place and went to the tech area anyway, but events like this will make it easier for them to get started and have an idea to be able to do something with it because they now have connections.”
The event began at around 6:00 p.m. with Zamansky’s light-hearted welcome speech. “I’m really impressed by the turnout here, especially since there are so many from the Stuy CS family here gathering together for one of the first times,” he said. “Since we all connect through our Stuyvesant experience, I was pushed to create this kind of event.”
Zamansky then introduced Hsu, who spoke on behalf of the SHSAA and discussed the potential impact that Stuyvesant CS alumni can have on current students. “We have such amazing alumni working in tech and these new fields, and they can impart their skills and their experience to mentor a lot of current students that will have some background in computer science in the future,” Hsu said. “We hope that […] as alumni we can make an impact on the students.”
For the majority of the event, students, teachers, and alumni gathered around individual wooden tables to have “speed-dating” sessions, Zamansky said. After about 15 minutes, everyone rotated and found new tables so they could meet new people.
Students and alumni discussed their different high school experiences, their involvement in computer science, upcoming jobs, startup projects, and even college admissions. “I like how universal computer science is solving so many real-world problems.” Fadi Laham (’07) said. “Having that experience in computer science, you have an advantage because there’s a universal application, and practically every company needs a tech-savvy person.”
After three rounds of speed dating, those who wished to continue earlier conversations or meet more people gathered around Fat Nanny’s. Meanwhile, Foursquare staff members gave tours to groups of students and alumni interested in seeing the office. Students were introduced to the high-tech work setting of the Foursquare employees, which incorporates whiteboard walls and iPads to post conference room schedules, iMac computers at every desk, and a video conferencing portal with the San Francisco office.
Many alumni expressed their approval for the event. “When I was in high school, we were really left to our own devices, and there wasn’t as much information available. This is really a nice thing for the younger set to appreciate, because now you really need to be able to network more,” Steve Taros (’84) said. “Even though it’s high school, it’s nice to see that we’re all related in a way.”
“I only wished that when I was going to Stuy, we had something like this, because it helps students by providing a lot of opportunities in both getting perspectives in the fields they want to go into and getting in contact with similar people, which is the best way to find jobs,” Camelia Papadopol (’03) said. “This gives you a nice head start.”
Many students were also happy with how the event ran. “My experience [at] Stuyvesant has already convinced me that I want to major in computer science when I go to college. Seeing these alumni, however, made me realize how many doors a degree in [computer science] opens,” senior Will Haack said. “I realized how willing the Stuyvesant alumni are to giving back to the Stuyvesant community.”
“The most rewarding portion was being able to talk to, basically, an older version of yourself. These alumni have been where we are now, and it’s nice to get advice from them,” senior Kong Huang said.
The event has also been recognized by other well-known figures in the technology community, such as venture capitalist Fred Wilson and NYU computer science professor Evan Korth, both of whom tweeted about the event via Twitter. This “shows why [Zamansky] is such a NYC treasure and how significant his impact on NYC Tech has been,” Wilson tweeted.
With this positive reception, Hsu hopes to continue such events and create more student-alumni interactions. “The turnout definitely shows a lot of interest from the alumni, who really want to contribute and become involved to help the student body. I think this will be the first event of many in the future, not only for computer science,” Hsu said. “It was a great event, especially as a first event.”
Following the end of the networking portion of the event, at around 8:30 p.m., Zamansky invited alumni and students to join a discussion on the state and future of Stuyvesant’s CS program. “[Computer science] teachers […] are just considered math teachers,” Zamansky said. “So we’re still fighting a long battle. My vision and goal is to get it to a state so that other schools like Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science [copy] our program to get these opportunities to students all over the city. That’s the real goal, because we can do whatever we want in Stuyvesant, but it’ll only affect 800 students.”
“We want computer science to be a future for Stuyvesant as a math and science school, and we want to try to build a consensus as to how computer science applies to other fields that aren’t pure computer science,” Hsu said.
The majority of the discussion involved the ways in which alumni could get involved in the computer science effort. Zamansky hopes to gain support for internship and mentorship programs to assist students in determining their level of interest in CS. However, especially with the fact that “in the last few years, internship laws have become more codified, it’s become harder for companies to provide unpaid internships,” Gerry Seidman (’76) said.
The group also discussed possible infrastructure changes in order to help broaden and improve communication among alumni. “We need some open communication, like a blog, so that we can tell students about our experiences and about what’s going on with the latest technology,” Papadopol said.
There was also mention of creating a new course in place of the current CS Intel Research class, because “the [Intel] competition is not made for computer science. There’s so much more programming and software research that needs to be done for students to really have a clear understanding of what’s going on,” Zamansky said. In his new class, which has yet to be approved, he hopes to divide students into small groups that will work on interdisciplinary projects applicable to real-world scenarios.
Even with all the politicking and meetings that the alumni must initiate, it was acknowledged that student involvement is extremely important not only to the cause of the computer science program, but also the entire school. “The students really need to work on developing a voice now,” Josh Weinstein (’05) said. “Ultimately, it’s as important for the student body to band together, because otherwise we look like self-interested alums. The students need to be representative at these meetings and start asking for it.”
Senior Teo Gelles, one of the few students at the discussion, agreed. “Of all the departments, we are probably the most loyal. The point is, students are willing to help with this,” he said. “And there should be some consideration for what can we do [as] there are a lot of us.”
For now, Zamansky hopes to continue the dialogue online and to keep in touch with an even broader base of alumni that is willing to help the CS program at Stuyvesant. In the near future, Zamansky also plans to create a working group of both alumni and current students who will meet often to openly consider various proposals.
“This initial meeting will hopefully be the first of many, and we can’t fit everything into one night,” Zamansky said. “Right now it’s about research, finding out what strategically [makes] sense, and getting ready on multiple fronts. I’m not advocating for spamming administrators with letters and e-mails, but I’m certainly not advocating for waiting another 17 years.”