Michael Blankenship: Getting on Track

In November 2015, things were not going well for Michael Blankenship, a CS freshman from Kentucky. “Well, for one thing, I woke up in the middle of my heart surgery.” he said, “That was kind of traumatic.”

His unexpected heart surgery was the last hiccup in a chain of events that caused him to leave Rice at the end of his first semester, even though he’d passed all his courses. It was time to regain his balance and his momentum.

“I’m from a small place, deep in the heart of the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky,” said Blankenship. “There are not a lot of students thinking about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. We’re more about family and community. Even if you move away for a few years, you always come back, give back, and support the community.”

Although he expects his path will eventually lead him home, Blankenship knew from an early age that he wanted to explore more opportunities. In seventh grade, he received information about a state STEM academy for high school juniors and seniors. The Gatton Academy would take 60 students from across the state each year for a rigorous college preparatory experience.

His local school offered classes that met the state requirements for seventh through twelfth grades but offered no classes that would meet Gatton Academy’s pre-requisites. Just before ninth grade, his mother found a way for him to enroll in the courses he needed, but the new school was an hour away from home; Blankenship left the house at 5:00 AM each morning for two years, trying to get on track for the academy.

Gatton Academy did offer him a spot, although he quickly realized he had barely met the minimal requirements. He said, “The other students had been in academically competitive schools all their lives. I called my mom and told her I made a mistake and I was coming home, but she talked me through it, and I worked really hard to keep up.”

After four computer science courses at the academy, he began looking for an engineering college with enough program flexibility to include more of the CS courses he’d come to enjoy. Blankenship said, “I wanted a small school with accessible faculty because I knew I would need guidance along the way and I expected to walk over to most of my professors’ office hours. You can talk about grades all day long but in the end, it’s really about how well you understand the material.”

When he arrived at Rice he’d already begun considering majoring in CS instead of mechanical engineering. His credits met the requirements for COMP 140, and COMP 182 wasn’t offered in the fall. So he took COMP 215 his first semester, along with five other courses.

“That was a mistake,” said Blankenship. “COMP 140 isn’t just about Python programming, it’s about learning how to think and applying the little bit of programming you know to real world problems. Skipping over two introductory COMP courses? That was insane.”

In the middle of the semester, he began having health issues that quickly led him to a heart specialist who scheduled a surgery for the next day. Blankenship said, “My family couldn’t even get a flight down to Houston before I was in surgery, and my Sid family became my local family.” Even though he was two weeks behind in his courses, he would not apply for medical leave.

“My GPA bears that scar,” he said, “but I passed and I can look at it now and see that I already made it through a really difficult time.”

Blankenship moved home for the spring and enrolled in a local university. He did not expect to return to Rice. Then his Chemistry professor, Lon Wilson, contacted him. “Dr. Wilson reached out to me to open a discussion about coming back to Rice, and offered me a summer job in his lab even though it wasn’t my major,” said Blankenship. He decided to spend the summer working in Houston and exploring his options. “By the end of the summer, I had gained a whole new perspective on my situation.”

Dan Wallach, his COMP 215 professor, also helped Blankenship regain his footing. “When Professor Wallach found I was leaving at the end of the fall semester, he brought me to the side and he saw the conflict I was feeling, even if he didn’t agree with my decision. After Dr. Wilson reached out, I got back in touch with Dr. Wallach who encouraged me and helped me plan out my classes for the upcoming semester.”

Blankenship said he came back to Rice with the right attitude and a more open mind. “I didn’t overload on courses. Now I block out my calendar so I can go by office hours. And before, I didn’t ask other students for help because I didn’t want them thinking I was clueless. Now I know it’s okay to ask for help about anything. Anything.”

He also made a fresh start by taking COMP 140 and 182 as a sophomore. “You really have to follow the CS program, because its rigidity has a purpose,” he said.

His openness about his challenges and his willingness to admit not knowing all the answers paid off at the fall Career and Internship Expo, when he met an industry engineer who had attended a Texas academy similar to Gatton. Blankenship said, “We struck up a conversation and he invited me to interview with his company. My first interview was a technical interview and I’d never done one before.”

Then he recalled advice he had heard in a Google tech talk, encouraging applicants to think out loud even if they were stumped. “So I looked at the problem on the white board and had no idea how to solve it, but I started talking about how I would approach it. The engineer would ask me a question, and I’d go a little further, and eventually, I solved the problem.” After a second interview with a team of engineers, Blankenship was offered a summer internship.

He feels that every Rice CS student can find their own success, no matter how well or poorly their previous schools prepared them. “I’m still not as prepared as some of the other students in my courses,” he said, “but you can be on that level if you want to. It just takes work. A lot of hard work.”