Although computer science is one of Duke's most popular majors, the decision to pursue a tech career can be particularly challenging for students of a lower socioeconomic status. 

The Chronicle spoke with two first-generation African American students who discussed how their backgrounds have impacted their experiences with computer science. Although sophomore Cameron King has at times struggled as a computer science major, he said resources at Duke have kept him from becoming discouraged. 

Senior Gilbert Brooks, by comparison, said his experiences growing up in a low-income family delayed his decision to pursue computer science and still impact him in class everyday. 

"I think for people who are first-generation or minorities, you come from a background that when you say something, you need to do it—no matter how painful it is,” Brooks said. 

Brooks opted to pursue computer science midway through his Duke experience. A Gates Scholar, he came to Duke as a pre-medical student and continued the pre-medical path for two years. During his junior year, he changed his major to computer science.

The reason it took Brooks so long to switch majors is because he is a first-generation college student. He did not have access to computer science in high school and did not know that computer science was something he could study when he arrived at Duke. 

He added that Duke's culture pushes students hard in the direction they initially decide—which can be both positive and negative. He said he was negatively impacted by following his advisors' initial suggestions to continue his pre-med track and finally concluded that he was happier in the computer science classes. 

“It took me so long to realize that dropping classes is okay…. that’s a mentality that is hard to achieve if your parents didn’t go to college," he said. 

Brooks added that selective social circles are another major barrier of entry into computer science.

The tech communities on campus that advertise as empowerment groups often require prior work experience, which Brooks said is not truly empowering. He also said that the more he delved into computer science, the fewer black students he saw in tech groups. 

“It was off-putting for me because I didn't see anyone I knew. It was all these people who wore really nice suits, worked at Microsoft, Google, Uber. I haven't worked in any of these places. I’m just trying to get my foot in the door,” Brooks said. "I’m just trying to make it."

Still, Brooks noted that Duke has provided resources that he has utilized, including Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship—which connects Duke entrepreneurs to companies across the world. There, he learned about networking and applied to be a Melissa & Doug Entrepreneur.

He also participated in the electrical engineering and computer science student showcase, which he said was helpful. The event allows students to present their work and discuss job opportunities with company representatives. 

But Brooks suggested that Duke creates a program to help first-generation students acclimate to the rigor of campus by familiarizing themselves with the curriculum before they begin classes. He added that Duke should replicate its Cardea fellows program—which helps pre-medical students prepare for a healthcare profession—for computer science.

"Actually put me through the schedule, show me the rigor that I am going to go through, because I have never seen anything like it," Brooks said. "If your parents haven’t been to college, they don’t know, and you just don’t know enough as a first-gen.”

He added that it is easy to go through Duke and not try and understand the lives of others, so it is important for people to care more.

“If you come from a background of tech, and you have power in that realm, extend a hand,” Brooks said. “For those who come from a low socioeconomic background, you gotta reach out because—at the end of the day—you suffer the most if you don’t do that.”

Like Brooks, King arrived at Duke with no computer science experience because his high school did not teach the subject. As a result, King—who is a Rubenstein Scholar and Washington Duke Scholar—said he tended to fall behind in his initial computer science classes. He was not familiar with certain concepts that other students learned in high school. 

I feel like often my peers have a better background in computer science than I do because I picked it up in college, and a lot of them had knowledge of it in the schools that they went to,” he said.

King noted that he maintained his grades in Computer Science 101 and 201 thanks to resources that Duke provides, such as peer tutors. However, as the classes became more advanced and his schedule tightened, his GPA declined. 

GPAs are particularly important in computer science. Jobs and internships are principally merit-based, King said, so people of any background can apply for similar jobs, and the more qualified candidate will likely be chosen. Therefore, coming from a less-advantaged background negatively impacted King's opportunities for internships.

However, as a Washington Duke scholar, King said he received increased support and resources. He added that he hasn't worried about the recruitment process because he has taken advantage of professional development training from the career center. 

“Had I not had those resources, I definitely would have been discouraged last semester. After meeting with my professor, he told me that even though I didn’t do well in the courses, it shouldn’t deter me from following through with the major, which is why I’m still going,” King said. “Otherwise, I would have probably switched to something outside of [science, technology and mathematics.]”

King said that people's socioeconomic backgrounds could also affect how they choose their majors. Money was not the main reason he decided on a computer science degree over design, but he said he considered the economic reasons more than many of his peers. 

“When deciding a major and which internships you apply for—coming from a less-advantaged background—you think more about how one thing will lead to another, which will lead to getting a better job or higher-paying job, so you can help yourself and your family,” King said. “I feel like some of my peers who aren’t as worried about money can major in things that are deemed less profitable.”

Correction: This article was updated to reflect that Brooks applied to be a Melissa & Doug Entrepreneur, not that he was chosen.