On Feeling Less Comfy, Getting (Un)stuck on Vigenère, and Learning Italian

Veronica Nutting, Head CA

I took CS50 as a very-much “less comfortable” student. My previous CS experience consisted of a trimester of Scratch in eleventh grade. I had only the heard of the word “terminal” in the context of transportation and illness. I’d never watched The Social Network. And I wasn’t even sure I could correctly pronounce “Malan.”

So, what drew me to CS50? I think I was mainly curious. A few people advised me not to take the class, which made me a bit nervous. But then I figured I’d at least try to prove them wrong. I have to start somewhere, I’d remind myself.

I really enjoyed the first lecture, so I kept going to them and always sat in the third or fourth rows (which I still hold have the best view). Mario and Cash took me a long time to figure out and even longer to code. And then Caesar and Vigenère really took me on a mental and emotional rollercoaster with the whole “letters are actually numbers which are really zeroes and ones” thing. (A lot of people want to know which is the hardest CS50 pset. It’s hard to say, but Caesar and Vigenère were definitely top contenders on my list.)

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly because I can relate. There were so many times when I struggled and felt overwhelmed or lost. And yes, there were exciting moments — like when I’d find that misplaced curly brace that was totally confusing my computer or when some concept would finally click — but a lot of it was pretty hard.

My dad recently told me about an analogy he’s been using to explain what learning CS is like, at least as he can best gather from everything I’ve told him. I’m paraphrasing greatly here, but it’s something along the lines of: “The assignment is to read and analyze a book in Italian and also by the way you have to learn Italian.” You do have to “learn Italian” in CS50, but you’ll have all the resources and support to do so. And you definitely don’t have to do it by yourself.

In fact, I greatly encourage you to make the most of the CS50 community. It is one of the best things about the course. I have met so many wonderful people in office hours, at lecture, and now on staff. Recently, I got into a discussion with one of my best friends, Sophia, about how we first became friends. We were searching through our early iMessage history and found that our first text conversation ever was about getting unstuck on Vigenère! (So while it might have been one of the hardest psets for me, I don’t resent it at all!)

Ok, now that you’ve heard a bit more about my story, I hope you’ll believe me when I say that you can do it! And that the CS50 team is here to support you always!



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Harvard University’s introduction to the intellectual enterprises of computer science and the art of programming.