She arrived as an engineering student, but was captivated by the possibilities of a career in computer science. “I spent days obsessively researching different career paths, and taking personality assessment tests like the Myers-Briggs. I decided I wanted to major in CS even before I took my first class as a sophomore,” she said.
Her decision was mainly based on her employment research. “I liked what I saw for career paths,” said Cantu. “It felt like I was almost guaranteed a job in any city I wanted. For a girl from a Hispanic family, that potential was really important. No matter where my family might go, I could probably get a good job with a CS degree.”
Even with no computer science classes, she landed an internship the summer after her freshman year. “I got an internship at a tech startup,” she said, “even though I wasn’t in CS. I had done well in my engineering-focused activities and courses, but I had given up on finding a job. That made me more relaxed in the interview. I think that, in combination with my obvious eagerness to learn is why they decided to take a risk and give me a shot.”
Her first tasks were in client-focused operations, where she demonstrated a knack for troubleshooting issues. She said, “They saw that I was good at problem solving and put me on testing. I was ‘really good at messing things up,’ they said, and the work was interesting. We’re on good terms and they still hire me to do ad hoc testing.”
She took Computational Thinking (COMP 140) with CS professor Scott Rixner as a sophomore and discovered she did not perform her best work within her assigned group. “It was hard for me to raise my voice in a group of my friends,” she said.
When Cantu realized she was not progressing the way she expected, her professor seemed to sense her discouragement. “Rixner was very encouraging and kind. He asked how I was feeling in class, then ended up changing my group –and that made all the difference. It was much easier to express my thoughts with strangers.”
Although her CS performance improved when she moved out of her friends’ group, she remained close to many of her classmates- in CS and out. That summer after freshman year, guys from her CAAM 210 class recruited her to join them in Rice’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or SHPE (pronounced ‘ship’).
“SHPE definitely made my college experience what it is,” said Cantu. “The guys asked me to take a role on the executive board, which got me more involved in the club. They were like my cousins at that point. There were only a few women in the club, and it felt like a big family – including the previous president – they really admired her and still talked about her a lot.”
Every other week, the Rice students went to a local charter school, KIPP Sunnyside. Cantu said, “We were acting as role models, helping them with their local SHPE chapter, even helping parents understand their senior’s college application process. Many of those kids will be the first in their family to go to college.”
Cantu also has advice for new CS students at Rice. “Get to know your professors well,” she said. “It makes a huge difference, especially in a difficult class. I’d go to office hours and say ‘this is what I’ve gotten’ and my professors would suggest I think about it from a different angle or start off with basic working code and build from that. Sometimes I’d even sit down and work on my homework there.”
She credits CS professor Alan Cox with making a significant impact on her success as a CS student. Cantu said, “Dr. Cox’s class is one of the most difficult ones, but he puts so much time and effort into it. He’s really concerned about how we are learning, and he has such a calm demeanor.”
Several days before a class project was due, Cox would hold emergency office hours in the McMurtry College Commons. Cantu said Cox and another instructor would be there to help students until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, moving from table to table and checking on each student. “The projects were difficult, but we had someone there rooting for us, making sure we knew how to succeed,” she said. “And Dr. Cox knew how to take my big question or my weird bug and boil it down to something I could understand.”
She also feels strongly that the relationships students build with their professors can lead to other opportunities. One of her professors helped her find a role as a research assistant at Baylor College of Medicine. “Don’t hesitate to get involved in research, especially as a freshman,” said Cantu. “Email your professors and ask if they have anything you can work on. If they give you a chance, then really take ownership over your part – it’s your deliverable for that project.”
Her parents have always been her support system, “going to the ends of the earth for me,” she said, but during her time at Rice, her professors have also formed part of her support system. “They’re all rooting for me and it’s invaluable to have a support system like mine, especially in a major as hard as CS.”
Itzel Cantu completed her B.A. with a double major in CS and Cognitive Sciences in 2017. She works as a technology analyst for JP Morgan Chase & Co. in Houston.