Student Spotlight: Zoe Ding
Exploring Computer Science With a Beginner’s Mind
by Marcelle Santos
Zoe Ding feels like she’s standing at a gate that opens up to a whole new world. Computer science, the field she chose to study at Northeastern University, is just that vast.
“There are so many fields in computer science, and in every field, you can go so deep. There is so much to explore,” she says, adding that she hasn’t found “the thing” that she’s going to pursue for the next ten or twenty years yet.
She’s comfortable with not knowing. When she realized that she couldn’t keep working as a theater producer in Shanghai—it was too hard to make a living that way—she didn’t despair. Instead, she saw an opportunity to start over.
“I didn’t know what to do at the time because I had just lost the thing that I wanted to do. But I thought, OK, if I’m confused, then maybe I can learn something new.”
Her friends suggested that she get into tech—specifically, that she look into the Data Science program at Northeastern. She was open to the idea, which is how she ended up at an education fair chatting with NU representatives. Before long, she was enrolling instead in the Align Master of Science in Computer Science.
That was in 2019. Fast forward to when she spoke to us in the summer of 2021 and, “like magic,” Zoe was living in Seattle, in an apartment subsidized by Facebook, one of several tech companies that offered her an internship.
She was interning there as a Production Engineer, a role that the company describes as “the glue holding things together.” It’s not too far off from how she defined a theater producer: someone with “a hand in everything that goes into a play.”
Before Facebook, she interned at a portfolio management company based in Boston. She wanted to see what it was like to work for a small organization before becoming part of a tech giant. And since Facebook, she’s moved on to her next internship at Lyft, a company that she was anticipating would be a middle ground between the two, possibly with a faster-paced culture.
She’s sampling as many flavors of tech careers and organizational cultures as she can, while she still can.
“When we graduate and start full-time employment, it’s harder to try things out. Transferring from one company culture to another takes a lot of effort. So I’m trying to experience as much as possible right now,” she says.
Finding without looking
With the multiple internship offers she’s received, you’d think that Zoe arrived on campus with a mission to get hired, fast.
But she came with an exploratory approach, and that’s what led to her first side project as a Northeastern student: a job as a Student Ambassador.
At a campus welcome event, she saw one of the Student Ambassadors greeting and helping people. That looked fun, so she asked them how she might go about getting a job like that.
“I asked, How can I become a Student Ambassador like you? Because I really want to do something like this, to get to know the campus and the people here,” she says.
Looking back, she thinks this is when she started to get good at “this thing of proactively reaching out to people.”
At that time, being a Student Ambassador meant sitting at a desk waiting for students to come by with questions or problems.
But the program was about to get revolutionized. Luckily for her, she got to help bring about some of the exciting new changes, including the recruitment of a new Director of Student Services.
“I’m just so lucky! I was there at the right time, so I got the chance to experience everything. Our programs became more about leadership, and we started hosting more and more colorful, interesting events.”
The importance of asking questions
She wasn’t trying to build her résumé, she just wanted to meet people. But, as it turns out, she learned a lot by helping to rebuild the Student Ambassador program. And the job really helped her improve her communication skills.
This, she says, was useful when it came time to do job interviews. It continues to serve her now, as she navigates work in a new culture and industry, with the added complexity of doing so in a remote setting.
“I think communication is really important. You have to be able to proactively reach out to people, ask all the questions that you have, and talk about the obstacles you’re facing. Sometimes we’re ashamed to do that because it makes us feel like we don’t know things. Like we’re not there [at work] to ask questions. But, actually, we are supposed to ask a lot of questions and we are there to learn. We can only learn by asking.”
As she approaches the end of her time at Northeastern, Zoe still has more questions than answers. That doesn’t scare her. She’s ready to enter the world of computer science with an open mind, and she’s hoping to meet people.