Kate's Success Story

There are a multitude of reasons why a person chooses to attend a particular university. Reasons to attend OU's School of Engineering and Computer Science are as numerous as the students themselves. Each month the SECS will feature a new "Student Success" story on our homepage. Be sure to check back often to see the new featured student or alumni and read why they chose SECS.

Kate's Success Story
Kate LaBelle, CSE '12, at her graduation from Oakland University in April 2012.

What is your background?
My name is Kate. I grew up in Eastpointe, MI, and attended Lakeview High School. I have two younger sisters, both of whom are attending Oakland University as well. I've worked at Oakland as a teaching assistant, a research assistant, and I've done a research internship last summer. I'm a member of ACM and ACM-W, and I currently work as a research assistant under Dr. Hanna.

What were the circumstances surrounding the moment when you realized you wanted to go into your chosen field of study? 
At first, I didn't even consider Computer Science as a major. When I graduated from high school, I was tossing around an English or a Mathematics major. My first year at Oakland was undecided, so I just took general education classes until I could decide for my sophomore year. I took an introductory programming class that taught me Visual Basic online, and I could tell that this was exactly what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. I always loved crunching through numbers and formulas, but not necessarily analyzing data (which is what a Math major would have been). Majoring in Computer Science would allow me to do just that.

Did you always think that you had what it takes to go into this line of work?
Oh, never. Part of me still can't believe I have a degree in this. I majored in it simply because it was fun, and I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather be doing with my life. I knew this was the general direction I wanted to work in. It wasn't until I started learning some of the higher-level concepts of computers that I really developed a passion for it.

What is so exciting about your major?
I love Computer Science because I'm always learning. There's always something new about the field that you never would have thought was possible. Moreover, there are endless job opportunities with it. I can go into IT, software programming, testing, and even some engineering fields. There are a TON of jobs available in this field. The best part, though, is the fact that you always have to be on your toes. You can't keep doing the same task over and over again or you'll fall behind. You always have to be aware of what tools are available to you. For me, I just loved the idea of having to come back to college and take a class or two to brush up on my skills.

What attracted you to Oakland University?
I felt like I could make a difference here, as sappy as that sounds. I almost went to the University of Michigan, but I didn't like the idea that I would just be another number. I wanted to go somewhere that was small enough to get to know people, especially my professors, but big enough to offer awesome opportunities. Oakland is just that. Once I started, I realized that my professors actually recognized me and wanted to get me involved in the department. I loved the fact that the professors were so involved.

Describe some of your favorite teachers at OU.
The teachers I'm closest to are probably Jerry Marsh and Darrin Hanna. I worked as Jerry's TA for about a year or so, and I'm currently doing research under Dr. Hanna. Jerry is awesome simply because he's really involved with the students. He teaches online classes, but he always knows who the students are. My first class (the Visual Basic one) that helped me decide to go into computers was taught by him. I've taken two other classes under him after that, just because I really liked the way he teaches. He empowers the students to learn how to learn. Moreover, undergraduate teaching assistants are very rare, and he really went out of his way to allow me to have that position. I'm still good friends with him.

Dr. Hanna is another great teacher. He has this insane ability to make you care about the material. He seriously makes engineering fun. He structures his classes in such a way that the material builds off of things you learned previously in the class. I remember studying for his final and laughing at what I learned the first month of the semester. I took a second class with him (CSE 378), and that was probably my favorite class at Oakland. After I took that class, Dr. Hanna offered me the position of working in his lab. Joining the lab was the best decision of my academic career (other than choosing to come to Oakland). We get to work on things that undergraduates can't even imagine. I've only been in it four months, and it feels like I've learned a year's worth. I'm so grateful that he (like other professors) believed in what I could become.

Besides textbook information, what else did you learn through your experience at OU?
The most helpful skill I've picked up at Oakland is learning to work in groups. I remembered hating working in groups; I was usually the one who took over. Almost all of the CS classes at Oakland assign projects that are too big for one person to handle. Instead, I learned to delegate and motivate others. I learned how to plan projects ahead of time, and how to make those plans a reality. Also, I've learned how to network. It's important to keep in contact with everyone; you never know who will offer you your dream job.

What do you do for your job?
In the research lab, the main project that I work on is debugging a software interface for a scanning probe microscope. We work closely with RHK, the external company that owns the microscope. The software project is enormous; there are hundreds of files, each of them thousands of lines of code. I work with a small team to tackle errors in the program that controls the microscope. Some errors are small, and can take one afternoon; others will take months. I'm learning about another project that involves writing a compiler that translates Java into VHDL, a hardware programming language.

How has your education at OU prepared you for your job?
I guess the biggest skills I've gotten from an OU degree is how to learn. I've learned how to think logically, work under pressure, collaborate with team members, and plan ahead. I've learned to think like a computer. I'm confident that I can figure out problems I've never encountered before. For my senior project, I had never even picked up an Android phone, and yet I produced a functional Android application that showed a map of Oakland's campus with corresponding campus events.

Do you find that only those from the very high profile schools are the ones who excel?
Not at all. Oakland's engineering program goes into far more detail than other high profile schools. More importantly, OU has lab components to classes that teach you how to apply your knowledge. It's a very hands-on approach that employers are looking for. It's all in how you use your knowledge.

Would you recommend that prospective students consider OU for a degree in your chosen major?
Absolutely! My youngest sister is planning on coming to OU to study Computer Science after hearing me talk about all of the fantastic opportunities the program has to offer. The CS program especially really encourages students to get involved, and the professors are there to help you with whatever you may need. It gives you insight to a little bit of everything in the field, so that wherever you go, it's not totally unfamiliar. More importantly, OU recognizes the need to stay current, and the program is always changing for the better.

What advice would you offer prospective students?
Use the resources that Oakland has to offer. Get involved. Oakland has so many student organizations available, and if you can't find one you like, create your own! As far as classes go, don't be afraid to ask for help. Oakland's greatest asset is that the professors are involved with the students. The classes are smaller so that your professor knows who you are. They will offer you endless opportunities if you show an interest. For example, I was granted a scholarship for an all-expenses paid computing conference in Portland, Oregon. Finally, try something new. You never know where your next passion will come from.