I don’t like looking at things through rose-colored glasses. I would be a horrible salesman because I like presenting the good alongside the bad. I think part of what makes any CS program, any school, any company, anything good is that most people who attend are happy with where they are and what they’re doing. There is no substitute for pure passion, and I think that kind of passion is much easier to find when you’re in an environment that fits you. What’s important to me, then, as a writer and as a person, is that I give my reader, you, the most objective idea I can of what you will be signing up for. Because honestly? Honors programs in college are not for everyone, and there is no shame in doing what is best for you.
As a disclaimer: the best decision for me is not the best decision for you. Quite frankly, I didn’t think very much about my college decision. I was stressed out just thinking about college, let alone choosing which college I would attend for the next four years, so I just picked the college on my list that was the cheapest and called it a day. I'm very, very lucky that the cheapest college on my list also happened to be the best fit for me. I'm lucky that everything has worked out for me, but that doesn't mean that UT is the best for you. And even if I don't include some of the reasons that you're looking for, UT might still be the right place for you. Don't use this as the end-all, be-all assessment of the Turing Scholars program. This is just the opinion of a college sophomore whose experiences are not indicative of everyone's.
With all that said, I don't have much to say about why I actually chose Turing Scholars. Like I said, I just happened to pick UT, so I didn't put much thought into accepting my admittance into the honors program; I was an honors student in high school, and I accepted because it felt like a natural extension of what I'd been doing in school my whole life (spoiler: college honors programs are not necessarily like high school honors programs). So instead of talking about why I chose Turing, I'll talk about my experience with Turing, both what I like and dislike, because I feel like that's more helpful than hearing about how cheap UT's tuition is. So, without further ado, here's what my experience has been like as a Turing Scholar thus far.
City Within a City
UT is big enough that walking during passing periods along Speedway, the street that cuts through the center of campus, is very crowded and absolutely miserable at peak times. It's easy to get lost among all the people, and that's where Turing comes in. Turing is a small community within the larger UT community, and you don't even have to work hard to join it. Just by being a Turing Scholar, you're part of a social group and a study group and a family all in one, which is great for introverts like myself. Our Turing Scholars Student Association board does a great job of hosting socials, research talks, and other cool events throughout the semester. It was nice to have automatic connections to upperclassmen who could give me advice, rides around Austin, and general guidance as I navigated my first semester of college. I don't think I took nearly enough advantage of the Turing Scholars student office, where people hang out doing homework and generally socializing.
The social aspect of the community is great, but the thing that really unites us as a group is going through the same struggles and sharing the same victories. All Turing Scholars take the same honors classes first semester, and there's nothing like challenging honors computer science courses to unite you with your peers.
Honors Classes Are a Different Experience
A perk of having a small honors program is that your class sizes are generally much smaller. I didn't take a class with more than 60 people in it until my first semester sophomore year (but that's because I'm in two honors programs, so double the small classes). As a high schooler, you may not understand the difference between a small classroom and a large lecture hall packed with people, but trust me: there's a difference. In a large class, the professor has to balance more students and more questions, and they're less likely to have time to answer every little question. Also, it's harder to hear if you're stuck in the back, and it's harder to learn overall. With small class sizes, you get more personalized attention during lectures and more time spent on what everyone, as a class, is struggling on. And on that note...
Honors classes are hard.
This doesn't hold true for all honors classes, naturally, but overall, I've found my honors classes to be much harder than their non-honors variants. I've had people ask me why I insist on taking hard honors classes when there appears to be so little reward for all the work that I'm putting in. It's true that I've struggled in all the honors classes I've taken so far, but if I could change anything about my first three semesters at UT, it would be my mindset rather than the coursework I took (I'll talk about this more later). Those hard classes have given me the skills to think through problems more quickly and be less intimidated by very hard problems. I'm more used to challenges, and I'm more used to failure, too. That may sound like a bad thing, but you're going to fail at some point in your life, so it might as well be now, in an environment where failure is encouraged as a necessary step for progress. My work in my honors classes is generally held to a higher standard, which means I learn more and I output higher quality projects. And, of course, as a nice bonus, non-honors classes are less challenging now.
So even though the coursework is hard, I wouldn't call that a downside at all. Sometimes, I don't have the energy to handle hard coursework, as I've discussed in previous blog posts, but that doesn't mean that I'd rather take the easier route. Down the line, as I get to choose my own classes more, I'll probably only take honors versions of classes that I find interesting so that I'm not doing extremely hard work that I also find uninteresting. But taking the intro classes at the honors level was definitely worth it; without challenging coursework, I wouldn't be nearly as competent at programming as I am now.
Everyone is Smart
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Being surrounded by smart peers is great when you're struggling and need to ask for help. Everyone is more than happy to drop what they're doing and help you when you're stuck, and I really appreciate that about Turing. Of course, the professors are also very smart and very willing to help out, but sometimes, you need help late at night when your professors aren't accessible, and that's when your peers will come in clutch. I've been saved by my peers many times while debugging programs and writing proofs. (This is in no way an endorsement of cheating. Collaborate, but don't copy.) Your peers will also constantly challenge you to become better; watching them make cool things as they go above and beyond will motivate you to work harder to be at their level.
Of course, if you're not careful, this can backfire. It's one thing to always be working to improve yourself, and it's another to put an undue amount of pressure and stress on yourself to try and get to that higher level. My peers are objectively smarter than I am; I came into college with minimal CS experience, whereas some of my peers had learned four languages and had internships. And it was stressful being a first semester freshmen surrounded by people who were better at computer science, who seemed to understand everything, who outperformed me in all my assignments and tests. It still is hard, but I admire my peers for their intelligence, problem-solving skills, and dedication to CS, and I acknowledge that I don't have the time and energy to get at that level (more in this blog post and this blog post). My peers are smarter than me when it comes to computer science, and that is intimidating, but it's also nice to know that I can turn to them for help when I need it.
Research is a Thing
The Turing Scholars program is geared towards kids who like CS research and want to go to grad school. Now, I don't know about you, but I had no idea that this was what Turing was about when I applied. I'm glad that I didn't let the research aspect of Turing scare me away, though. When I entered college, I thought that doing research and writing a thesis were scary ideas. Now, I'm happily working on research, and I enjoy it more than I would have ever thought. Writing a thesis is still intimidating, but I'm excited to take on the challenge and learn from the experience. I probably won't go to grad school or become a full-time researcher in the industry, but I'm still enjoying the experience of doing research. If you're a high schooler looking to do research, Turing is a great way to get started and get the guidance you need to get you to grad school; if research doesn't interest you, perhaps you'll end up enjoying it like me once you give it a try. Don't let the thesis discourage you from becoming a Turing Scholar.
So to sum up: Turing Scholars offers a small community at a large school, provides a challenging curriculum, and surrounds you with other people your age who are as smart or smarter than you, while encouraging you to try research. Almost all of my close friends in college are in Turing, and even though I have a social circle outside Turing now, it was a good way to adjust to life at a large school. The challenging curriculum equipped me with the skills I need to face any college CS class, and when I get stuck, my peers can help me. Sometimes, being in hard classes is stressful, but as long as I remember that I'm here for the experience and not the grade, I've been able to get through it.
If you're the CS kid who loves doing hackerrank problems 24/7, good news-- you'll fit right in. And if you're the kid who, like me, dipped their toes into CS in high school and didn't pursue it more seriously until college, you'll also be totally fine. You might be intimidated, or stressed, or worried at first, but you'll still be okay. I'm proof of that.
If you have more questions about Turing Scholars, you can check out their website or feel free to message me on Facebook or leave a comment below. I'd be happy to answer any questions you have.