Today we feature Julie Gerber (she/her), a rising junior computer science major from Morris County, New Jersey. We strive to amplify all student voices, all year-round. To be featured, please contact rowanblog [at] rowan.edu.
Julie shares her experience as a Rowan University student with autism and how the university’s programs like Autism PATH (Preparation and Achievement in the Transition to Hire) Program and College Compass have supported her transition to college life.
Why did you choose Rowan University to study for your undergraduate degree?
The two main reasons why I chose Rowan were that the engineering program seemed very good, but the biggest reason was Rowan’s support. They have an accessibility office on campus, and everyone in that office genuinely cares about the students and was very helpful. The PATH program is also extremely beneficial. Only one other school had a support program for autism. Overall, the vibe of the campus was also nice and supportive, and it was something that I did not see at the other schools I looked at.
Why did you choose to study computer science?
I switched from mechanical engineering to computer science because I realized that the reasons why I chose mechanical engineering in the first place did not apply to the field. I have always loved tinkering with things. I remember in high school, I was thinking about what I wanted to do, and it just clicked; engineering. So then I went and researched different types of engineering and determined which engineering disciplines aligned most with my interests: mechanical engineering.
I found out in my first year and a half here that it was a bit different than I had hoped, and I did not like the technical and rigorous parts of the major. The math class I took last semester made me pull my head out of the sand and realize that I was not on the right path. I kind of crashed and burned in this class, and obviously, I did not just switch majors because of one math class; however, this experience made me step back and reflect on what I would do going forward. I considered switching my major as a backup plan and realized it sounded exciting to venture on a new path.
Do you have a dream job or industry that you hope to pursue someday?
Not really. I just am excited to see what I become passionate about as I go through college.
How has Rowan supported you as a college student with autism?
Rowan has helped me transition into college so much. The accessibility office is incredible and everyone there genuinely cares about the well-being of students. I have been there a lot, and they help with everything from general guidance to accommodations in classes and support.
The PATH Program is through the Office of Career Advancement and for students with autism to navigate school, life, and professional endeavors, which has also been very helpful. With their career advice, I secured an internship for Lockheed Martin last semester and will be returning this summer.
When I started at Rowan, I had yet to learn how to manage schoolwork independently. I often had to talk to my teachers with my parents, which led to having limited independence from my parents. My PATH coach was really helpful with figuring out this transition. I knew I could discuss options with my PATH coach if I needed clarification on handling a specific situation.
There is also this program called Compass which is for incoming students. This program provides students with a chance to move in early and get settled before the majority of other students arrive on campus and offers personalized tours of campus and locations of classes. This program was beneficial in navigating my first few weeks on campus.
What has your favorite part of Rowan been so far?
I like the people here. A lot of the time, people have a positive attitude and a good sense of humor which is refreshing to experience. In addition, people are friendly toward each other, and there is no uncomfortable competitiveness between students.
It is special how much the staff at Rowan genuinely cares about their students. Administrators, the president, professors, and so many others demonstrate daily that they care about all the students and want them to succeed.
Is it difficult being a bit further away from home? How did you navigate the freedom and independence of being a college student that does not have the ability to travel home as frequently?
I went home many times during my first year but quickly realized it disrupted my schedule. So this past year, I stayed on campus a lot more, and my parents will visit me frequently. I am lucky they travel to see me as frequently as they do.
Are there any professors that have had a lasting impact on you so far?
My engineering clinic professors from last spring and last semester were two separate professors, but they were there for me similarly. Unfortunately, I got a lot of migraines and missed many classes due to those. However, both professors were so understanding and made sure that I could still learn and get my work done even if I could not be present in class.
What is your favorite part of computer science?
My favorite part of computer science is being able to take a problem and figure out how to translate it into code. I do really like the coding process; if I had to spend 20 hours a day coding, I would probably be miserable, but I do really like the nature of coding and figuring out how to solve a problem.
If you feel comfortable discussing, could you discuss the challenges of being a student with autism? Are there any misconceptions about having autism that you would like to discuss? Is there anything that you would want the readers to know?
One struggle definitely is social abilities. As someone with autism, I have a limit to the amount of social interaction I can face before I am drained. However, this is something that I have gotten a lot better at, and I have begun to develop the ability to freeze up less in personal interactions.
Another thing that I struggle with is reading between the lines. I need clarification in understanding messages that are left unsaid. For example, if the professor shares homework instructions in class and may infer to do a particular task but does not verbally express that, I could not pick up on it as well as students without autism. I know that I struggle with this, so I often ask for clarification when needed.
I would want readers to know that autism is a spectrum, and I like to refer to it as a color wheel with sliders. There are so many different facets that can be different when people have autism. For me, the visible ways that I am affected by it are minor, so many people do not know immediately that I have autism. My experience is more inherent. Everyone is affected differently; some people can go on daily with limited support, and others need more support in different areas.
I think of myself as a computer running a different operating system. Most people run Windows, and I have some weird, hacked third-party system. Most of the time, it functions fine; other times, it freezes and tries to do too much at once. However, my biggest problems come in when I try to interact with others. My computer did not have interpersonal social skills, so I had to download a version from a sketchy website, which did not work well. I like to think of it that way and explain it to others that way.
Do you have any internship experience or are you currently looking for any internships? If so, what are those?
I interned at Lockheed Martin as a systems engineering and coding intern last summer. I enjoyed most of the parts that focused on coding. So this summer, I am returning, and my internship will mainly focus on coding and software.
Rowan partnered with Lockheed Martin and other companies interested in hiring more neurodiverse employees, which is another way that Rowan stands out from its competitors.
How do you envision yourself after Rowan?
I am still determining what is next for me after Rowan, but I know I will be looking for a job in the computer science field. However, I know I am in no rush to attend graduate school.
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Story by: Natalie DePersia, senior public relations major