Computer Science Student Maria Heitman Works to Build Communities

Early in her freshman year, LSU computer science student and Philippines native Maria Heitman attended her first meeting of the campus chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. She says she immediately noticed the group’s student president was, like her, a woman from the Philippines.

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“That really encouraged me and gave me a feeling that I could do this, too,” she says.

That’s exactly what she did. Three years later, Heitman is serving as president of the same organization and working to build a stronger community among her fellow computer science students. She’s also pursuing her dual interests of software development and business while mentoring high school students in the world of computer programming.

FASCINATED BY CODE

Heitman attended Franklinton High School in Washington Parish, where she encountered coding during a robotics class her junior year. “We started building robots and we coded several of them with C++,” she says. “I was fascinated by how the codes were able to move the robots automatically.”

She says her interest in programming grew during her final year of high school, and that when it came time to choose a college major at LSU, computer science seemed the most logical choice.

Heitman, who is on course to graduate in spring 2019, says she’s concentrating on software engineering with a business minor. “Business is something I’ve always been interested in — running your own thing, managing, having a business,” she says. “Computer science skills and business skills are like partners for me.”

Despite her high school introduction to coding, her actual programming knowledge was limited to a few lines of code pertaining to robotics. Her first class at LSU was an introduction to the programming language Java, which proved to be a steep learning curve.

“That was pretty tough for me,” she says. “What helped me was having friends and going to organizations with upperclassmen who have gone through the same thing.”

Her skills have progressed considerably over the past several years. Today she’s working on a project through a software engineering class to help animal shelters increase their adoption rates. The software, a combination of a desktop program and website, is intended to help shelter employees more efficiently enter data about animals into their system, making it more accessible to potential adopters via a web interface. She says the biggest takeaway from the project has been the power of collaboration. “Teamwork gets things done,” she says. “Teamwork makes things easier.”

FOSTERING CONNECTIONS

Heitman serves as an officer in the LSU chapter of Women in Computer Science, which supports the professional and academic development of females in the field. The group provides career training, hosts an annual hackathon, and offers a way for female programmers on campus to connect with others going through the same journey.

She also serves as president of the Association for Computing Machinery’s student chapter, which advocates for computer science and the students who study it. The organization holds a community meeting every few weeks to let students study together and form connections. For other meetings, ACM invites technology companies to present information about their firms and connect with students.

“It’s both a community for computer science students and recruiting for students who are seeking internships and jobs,” Heitman says.

Heitman also participates in LSU’s Geaux CS program, which is funded by a Google igniteCS grant and is designed to promote enthusiasm for computer science. LSU students in recent years have mentored high school students in robotics and computer programming through the program.

“It’s so nice to be able to go back and share with high schoolers things I’ve learned in college and just spark some interest in them to get them thinking about computer science, computer engineering, or any engineering courses,” she says.

EARLY START

Heitman took the unusual step of applying for an internship her freshman year. Given her lack of programming and workplace experience, her expectations were low. “I didn’t think I would actually get offered anything,” she says. “But I went through the interviews anyway, just so I would have some experience with how interviews work.”

As it turns out, however, Chevron offered her an analyst internship in one of its business units. She has continued working with the company, most recently as an intern with the company’s DevOps team, which offered more technical experience.

Heitman encourages new students to begin seeking out internships and other work experiences as soon as they step on campus. “Start as soon as you can,” she says. “Start now.”