J Peterson: Teaching the Next Generation of Students

J Peterson, Rice University CS senior.While most CS majors choose to go into industry work or academia, J Peterson (CS ’19) chose to move to Phoenix, AZ to be a teacher. This decision came after exploring career options ranging from music to medical school.

“During my senior year, I wanted to go to music school for piano but decided not to do that. I thought music could be a hobby while I pursued my interest in STEM,” Peterson said. “When I got accepted to Rice, I was excited. I had applied as pre-med and cognitive science. I changed my major over the summer because I realized medical school was not for me. During O-Week, I decided to try Mechanical Engineering because I like math and I like to build things. After taking a coding class, I decided to switch to CS the next year,” they said.

Peterson said a professor encouraged them to follow simple steps for career fulfilment.

“Go after something that you’re good at, you can get paid for, the world needs and you love to do. The emphasis was to work in CS not for the money but because it is fulfilling,” they said.

Working at two large firms as an intern helped Peterson settle their decision of finding a fulfilling CS career.

“These last two summers I had internships with Goldman Sachs in New York City and Salesforce in San Francisco. They paid very well but when I went to work, I didn’t feel like I was doing the most I could with my Rice degree,” Peterson said.

“The biggest reason why I came to Rice is because I want to make the world a better place and have as much impact as possible. I didn’t feel like I was doing that by working at a tech company. This last internship negatively affected my happiness and work ethic and that had never happened to me before. It was a red flag as far as what I should do as a college graduate,” they said.

A recruiter from Teach for America reached out to Peterson during an event at Rice. Peterson never considered teaching, although they had always volunteered with education-focused programs.

“It was a light bulb moment. I had been volunteering since my freshman year, but teaching isn’t the traditional path for a CS major. I didn’t know of another CS student who had done it. There is a big emphasis on money within CS but that didn’t align with what I was looking for,” Peterson said.

“I had a full-time job offer from Salesforce. I will make a third of that salary as a teacher, but it will be astronomically more meaningful to me. Since my family is financially stable, I have the privilege of choosing this path and feel obligated to do so,” they said.

“I also think I should use the privilege I have of going to a world-class university by servicing others in need. I want to use my college experience to make students’ lives better and get them to schools like Rice. I would rather help a student get a high paying tech job than take one for myself,” Peterson said.

After graduating from Rice this Spring, Peterson will start their job through Teach for America as well as begin a Master’s Degree in Education at Arizona State University. When asked why they chose to focus on helping others, they credited their parents.

“My parents were big influences on me. They encouraged me to choose a career path that was meaningful and would make me happy,” they said.

Peterson is a founding member of RemixCS, a group of undergraduate students who teach coding at a local high school with a large number of minority students. They also work on research for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality Department (SWGS).