Tiana Brandon: Building a Bridge to Success for Students in CS
Tiana loves CS and considers herself a supporter of CSE. She shares her experiences, struggles, and thoughts as a first-generation student.
Tiana Brandon is a senior majoring in Computer Science, and minoring in Applied Statistics, at the College of Engineering who is on track to graduate in December 2020. Articulate and smart, she is excited about pursuing a future in network and web related cybersecurity — but equally concerned about the obstacles to success faced by other underprivileged students in the CS program. She is currently a tutor at the Engineering Learning Center (ELC) and is active in engaging with the department about building a bridge that will help future students to succeed.
Tiana is a first-generation student and a Blavin Scholar at U-M. The Blavin program provides students who have experienced time in foster care with support in navigating and maximizing their college experience as they pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University. Tiana grew up in foster care in her hometown located in Los Angeles County.
Although her high school of Palmdale was located within five miles of Lockheed Martin skunkworks, Boeing, and NASA, it did not perform well and had a low graduation rate. Violence at the school was normalized. To build a path out of the cycle she saw many of her classmates trapped in, Tiana helped to found a solar car team at her school. She was also interested in engineering, and no opportunities of this sort had previously existed at the school. She was 15.
The team, which continues today, builds solar cars from scratch for the National Solar Car Challenge. In its inaugural year, the team was able to build a car and participate in a competition in Fort Worth, Texas.
One of Tiana’s jobs on the team was fundraising, and she was able to help bring Lockheed Martin on board as one of the team’s first sponsors. She also approached other companies for both money and supplies, such as solar panels, electronics, and metal chassis components.
By complete chance, one of her first fundraising pitches was to a man named Lou Kwiker. She didn’t know anything about him, but he ran a solar company and the team had contacted him to ask for a donation of solar panels. It turned out that he was a U-M alumnus and a donor to the U-M solar car team. He was so impressed with what Tiana’s team was doing that he promised the team members that if any of them were admitted that he’d pay their tuition. He liked the idea of starting a pipeline from Tiana’s team to the U-M solar car team so that the U-M team would get an infusion of experienced students, and he hoped to increase the diversity of the U-M team.
Unfortunately, everyone on the founding team was a senior except Tiana, who was a junior, and by the time the offer was made it was too late for the seniors to apply. “A lot of them had broken hearts,” said Tiana, “because we actually flew out and met the U-M team, which generated a lot of interest.”
When she first applied at Michigan she was deferred, but Lou was sure that Michigan would see her potential so he flew with her to visit campus and to meet with people with the expectation that she would be admitted. She eventually was, and at that point there was no question about it: she was going to attend Michigan.
When she had visited, Tiana met with many people in admissions and elsewhere in the administration. She was also able to enroll in the U-M Summer Bridge program, which is offered by the Comprehensive Studies Program in LSA and provides transition support academic, social, and personal support for students with outstanding potential for success at Michigan. Knowing that she had that network of people to rely on and who were watching out for her made it much easier for her to transition from her former life to Michigan.
Although she was admitted through LSA, once she arrived on campus, she thought she would want to major in Mechanical Engineering. “Then I took Physics 240,” she says, “and I learned that mechanical might not want me the way that I had thought that I wanted it!”
She took EECS 183 and loved it; it is still one of the classes she enjoyed most at Michigan. But it was also in that class that she first felt targeted because of her identity, when another student made a disparaging remark within earshot during a lecture. “Growing up in LA,” she said, “I rarely felt judged by my racial identity. People there don’t care as much about your color. They’re more interested in knowing if you have money.”
In the moment that the incident happened, she did not know how to react, and she ultimately did nothing. “I wish now that I had at least said something to the student or to the professor,” she said. “But I froze.”
Despite that incident, her initial experience in a CS class was positive, and she felt she had found her calling. Because of her initial interest in Mechanical, she was already in the process of transferring to Engineering, so she would eventually end up declaring in CS at the College of Engineering rather than through LSA.
Transferring to Engineering was not easy, but she did it. However, she already saw other students who looked like her — young black women and men — not making it in physics, chemistry, or other STEM classes. This actually motivated her to try harder because she felt that “one of us has to make it so that we can pull the rest up. If I have to give 110% to get a C where someone else might give 75% to get an A, that’s just the way it’s going to be.” Also, she was keenly aware of the support and help that she had gotten from Lou Kwiker and others. “I just had to pay that back,” she said.
During her freshman year, Tiana did join the U-M Solar Car team. To her surprise, the team did not have the personal, supportive feeling that her high school solar car team had. Instead, she found the atmosphere to be “rather cut-throat” where nothing was ever good enough and team members were often borderline hostile. “I don’t think it was even a racial or background thing,” said Tiana. “It’s just how they are. And I understand, because they raise over a million dollars a year and compete at the highest level. But I just couldn’t do that.” Coming from a compromised support system and being introduced into that environment caused her to realize that she needed to make other connections.
That’s when Tiana became interested in social justice work. She joined the (now defunct) Students for Justice group and developed a desire to learn about other cultures and the issues that different types of people had in trying to fit into society. She paid close attention to how the group organized protests and how it worked with the administration to provide input on policy. This exposure to activism and administration influenced her as she made the transition from LSA to Engineering. She learned about the importance of having a voice.
In her sophomore year as a CS student, Tiana discovered a daunting roadblock in the form of EECS 203, Discrete Math. Despite the many challenges she had previously faced growing up in foster care, and the academic challenges of her previous U-M courses, “nothing broke me like EECS 203. It was the most rock-bottom depressed I’ve ever been.” The reason was because unlike coding, where you could put in extra time and figure it out, EECS 203 included mathematical proof writing, and she had no basis for what was expected in that area.
The first time she signed up for the class, she didn’t have a friend in the program ahead of her to advise her for what the class was about, and Tiana had to withdraw. The second time, she knew what to expect, but she also knew that if she couldn’t pass the course she’d have to drop out of CS as a major (the department instituted a “two-try” rule for EECS 203, 280, and 281 in Fall of 2014). In addition, so many people, including Lou Kwiker and her supporters at U-M, had high expectations for her. It was an incredible amount of pressure.
At the EECS 203 midterm, Tiana was under so much pressure that she completely blacked out. She’s not sure she even put her name on the page. Afterwards, she was a wreck. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that in public before,” she said. When she got home, she immediately contacted the instructor to request a re-take. Her best friend, with whom she had previously taken EECS 183 and EECS 280, and with whom she had done projects for class, was also traumatized by the stakes presented by the midterm. “From that moment on, she was out of CS,” said Tiana. “She graduated last year, but in another major.” But Tiana did not want to give up.
She was ultimately able to rely on the Office of Student Support and Accountability to assist with a resolution for the midterm and she was able to complete the class successfully. She often thinks about, especially after witnessing it happen numerous times, how her entire CS career could have been stopped with the result of a single midterm. After completing the class, she posted what she calls her “rant” on Piazza, in which she pointed out the pressure that the class places on students and what she believed was an institutional disregard for the students taking it. Tiana felt it was the first time in her life that she had really taken a stand for something on her own. The post got a number of comments, some of which were supporting but some of which were quite disturbing. It was the second time that she felt marginalized by other students in the program.
Tiana is now long past EECS 203, 280, and 281, where the two-try policy, and a GPA requirement for 281, is much on the minds of students, especially those who enter the program without extra preparation such as previous coding experience or advanced math skills. But she continues to speak out about how this early portion of the curriculum manages to curtail the dreams of students who are simply coming to the program without the advantages of extensive prior experience and/or without strong support networks.
“I work just as hard as everyone else, I go to office hours, and I’m an ELC tutor, so it’s not like I haven’t learned the material. I just don’t understand why some of us have to fight so much harder to get what others take for granted every day.
“I just want the students who come after me to have a more equitable opportunity to learn computer science,” said Tiana. For this reason, she tries to speak out about the challenges facing many students. She tutors at the Engineering Learning Center (ELC), where she tries to help students who are in CS, especially those who are afraid and struggling in the programming core: EECS 183, EECS 280, and EECS 281.
While Tiana understands the challenges faced by the CS department, as so many students wish to declare CS that it overwhelms the faculty supply and stretches the available budgets, she urges the department to find fair solutions that can preserve diversity. Tiana spent her undergraduate time watching policies like these, exam-to-project grade ratios in courses, and campus climate push underrepresented minorities out of STEM majors, and wishes to see change.
“When you place a two-try policy and 2.5 minimum GPA across the CS core, which students are you weeding out? It’s not the students who come into college with coding experience. It’s often the few black women and men who are pushed out, and people with other underrepresented identities like first generation college students.”
In addition to reconsidering policies, she urges the department to polarize their approach: when promising students do not perform well, they should be met with supplemental resources and encouragement rather than advised to change majors. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with making a student retake a course with the same background knowledge, system, and skillset that caused them to fail or withdraw initially. If the department listens to student input and takes immediate action, Tiana knows a resolution can be found that is equitable to the students and simultaneously caters to the needs of the department.