Cracking the codes, at Penn

Alagiavanan Saravanan

Challenging coding assignments, interesting projects and a happening social life… ALAGIAVANAN SARAVANAN writes about his academic journey at the University of Pennsylvania.

Having graduated as a Gold Medallist in Computer Science from the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore, I ventured out to pursue my master’s in computer science after working for a year. The obvious choice among the various universities I came across was the University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League School. I chose this School as it had the right mix of machine learning and distributed systems courses which I wanted to specialise in.

Learning environment

The university has one of the most beautiful campuses in the U.S. which can be easily covered by a 20-minute walk. The professors in the CIS (Computers and Information Sciences) department were top-notch and very much approachable during their office hours. We use Piazza board for online discussions, where any student in the class can post a doubt and fellow students can answer it anytime. The replies thereby get endorsed by the professor or a teaching assistant. It was more of a Facebook setting but at the academic level; so it was a lot of fun.

We were given challenging coding assignments after every week or two. They were more like mini-projects that helped us get a thorough understanding of the concepts presented in class. Also, every course that I took came with a massive open-ended final project. I have done projects such as a distributed group-chat system, face morphing software, text classification app, developing a “mini-Google” from scratch (yes, you read it right!). My most interesting project was when we worked with the Penn Vet Working Dog Center to help them refactor the Android App they were using to train dogs to detect cancerous cell specimens. For this project, we had to fix bugs, develop new features and do live demos in an “agile-fashion” for every two weeks throughout the semester. The extra-credits thrown into the grading system prompts everyone to put in tons of hard work to emerge out the best.

The social scene at Penn is pretty good, too. Lots of food carts very close to the campus are our favourite “go-to” places for a quick meal amid our super-busy schedules. There is Rangoli, the Indian association at Penn, which does everything to make Indian students feel at home. They have a professional board that organises events for fresher’s party, Diwali, Republic Day, Holi, Saraswati Puja, and other important days in a grand manner throughout the year. Students from different cultures also attend these events which give us some kind of relaxation.

Outside the regular coursework, students take up interesting part-time positions such as teaching/research assistant and tutors, among others. I worked as a TA for my computational linguistics course and enjoyed it a lot, for it brought out the wonderful instructor in me. My whole experience of being a CIS master’s student at Penn was challenging. I learnt a lot technically and also made friends from different parts of the world. Come July, I will be heading to SAP, Palo Alto, to start working as a software engineer.

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