A Journey of Growth and Resilience: Elizabeth Nible’s Experience at Iowa State

November 16, 2023

“As I get towards the finish line of my degree, I know it was completely worth it... I realize how much I have grown in all aspects of my life in the last year and that I have overcome a major hurdle and turned it into an extremely positive experience.”

Meet Elizabeth Nible.

In the Fall of 2016, Elizabeth arrived on campus at Iowa State University as a double major in Computer Science and Communication Studies. However, the challenges of navigating a new field and personal setbacks led her to reconsider her journey. Following a break from her studies in Computer Science, she made the decision to return to campus to complete her Computer Science degree.

“Elizabeth is an outstanding student and person,” said her advisor, Deb Holmes. “As an advisor, I am impressed with her persistence and ability to connect with her professors and peers. She is a great example and leader to our new students through her role as a peer mentor. We are excited to see what the future holds for Elizabeth!”

We sat down with Elizabeth to hear about her journey as she prepares to graduate with her Computer Science degree.

Can you take us back to the beginning of your journey at Iowa State?

I started at Iowa State in the Fall of 2016 as a double major in computer science and communication studies. I originally was only focused on computer science and thought I would end up eventually dropping communication studies, but after taking COMST 101, I realized how interesting communication theory was to me and how the degree would help me no matter what career path I took in life, so I decided to stick with it.

Reflecting on your first semester, can you share the challenges you faced, particularly with your computer science classes?

My first semester was a great experience, but I struggled with my classes. My high school didn’t offer any coding classes, so my first exposure to programming was COM S 227. As someone who had built my identity around being the “smart kid” in high school, I struggled greatly with my class performance. This started some of my feelings of imposter syndrome, but the amount that I struggled with coding compared to my peers exacerbated it. I felt silly asking my peers and the professor basic programming questions, and I was afraid to use any online or outside resources because I didn’t want to be accused of cheating. I isolated myself a lot during this period and didn’t build a good support system for myself because I felt like I would drag people down with my struggle to understand.

Can you walk us through what led to you deciding to focus on Communication Studies instead of Computer Science?

After my first semester during winter break, my dad unfortunately had some significant health problems that drastically changed my home life. I tried to find a balance between school and home life in my second semester, but I was struggling significantly, and my imposter syndrome was getting increasingly worse. When I returned to school for the fall semester of my sophomore year, I realized that I needed to change something, or my school performance and personal well-being would suffer. Because computer science was a significantly more time-consuming degree and was causing me a lot of stress, I decided to focus on my communications degree instead.  Because both degrees are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, this allowed me to still make some passive progress on my computer science degree regarding humanities and diversity credits.

How did this decision alleviate the stress you were experiencing?

I remember the huge relief I felt when I made that decision, and I didn’t feel like I had this constant weight looming over me. My dad’s health continued to decline during this time, so my focus pivoted to finishing my degree as quickly as possible so that he would be able to see me graduate, which was a big deal for me as a first-generation college student. I could finish the degree in three years instead of 4, taking summer classes while working full-time to help reach my goal.

What was it like the first time you graduated from Iowa State?

Unfortunately, my dad passed away a month and a half before graduation, and it felt like I faceplanted right before the finish line. I debated if I should crawl my way to the end or give up. Ultimately, I decided I had come too far and worked too hard to give up now.

What factors led to your decision to return to school for your computer science degree?

After I graduated, I began working at a law firm in Des Moines. I worked with some amazing mentors and team members but realized I was not on the right path. After a gap year turned into a gap year plus COVID, I finally decided that the best way for me to expand my career opportunities and get a job that met all of the important qualities I was looking for was to go back to ISU in the fall of 2022 and finish my computer science degree.

Returning to school after a hiatus can be daunting. Can you share the fears and challenges you faced?

This idea absolutely terrified me. I remember emailing my advisor, Deb Holmes, explaining that I was considering returning to finish my degree. She immediately remembered me, and I remember how warm and welcoming her email back to me felt. To feel important to someone from a time when I felt isolated and like no one cared was so refreshing and probably one of the main reasons I decided to stick with my decision to return.

After getting as much practice as possible while juggling working full time, moving to Ames from Des Moines, and taking classes at DMACC, I finally came to my first day at Iowa State. I’ve always loved this campus, so it felt great to be back. What surprised me the most was the increase in diversity in the computer science major. I was overjoyed to see an increase in women like me who are passionate about STEM.

Besides Deb, did any professors or staff play a particularly helpful role in your transition back to the Computer Science program?

The professor that stood out to me the most was Dr. Samik Basu. I had heard horror stories about how difficult COM S 311 can be. Taking the class 6 years after I had taken the prerequisites didn’t help my nerves. However, Dr. Basu was one of the kindest professors I could have asked for during this transition period. He always did a great job answering me, explaining when I did something wrong, and taking pity when my first coding project in Java didn’t go as planned. His kindness and support went a long way in bringing back my confidence.

Dealing with imposter syndrome is a common struggle. What specific strategies did you employ to combat these feelings, especially when it came to refreshing your coding skills and facing challenges in your coursework?

Imposter syndrome is a tricky thing, and sometimes, even though you know logically that everything is okay, it can be hard to progress when emotionally you are feeling significant stress. Every time I got on LeetCode to refresh my coding skills before returning to school, I would immediately feel dread and panic in the pit of my stomach if something didn’t immediately compile. I could feel my heart start racing, and my head would be spinning. If I couldn’t complete an easy LeetCode problem now, six years later, how would I return to a degree I was halfway through?

The main things that have helped my imposter syndrome are:

  • Breaking up code/problems into small tasks that I know I can get working/answering and slowly building off that.
  • Starting assignments early.
  • Learning how to feel comfortable asking for help.
  • Telling myself “I will work through this problem until I am to the point of making no real progress, and then I will go and get help from people who want to see me succeed, and together we will be able to reach that goal, and everything will work out” to reassure myself.
  • Talking through my code to my dog or writing it out on a whiteboard to see where I am getting stuck.
  • Taking a deep breath, recognizing that I am feeling imposter syndrome and that it is normal and something a lot of people face.

I have also found that being more open with my friends and peers about my struggle with imposter syndrome has also helped me overcome a lot of those feelings and has helped me feel not so alone, realizing how many others have the same thoughts about themselves. I am a big believer in the phrase, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room,” so reframing my thinking from feeling like an imposter to realizing I have an opportunity to learn and grow from those around me also helps.

How did you go about getting to build your social circle, and how have your friendships contributed to your overall success?

I worried a lot about making friends as an older student, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met some really amazing students I call friends. I’ve gotten good at making small talk with people when I join a new class or getting introduced to someone new by someone I am already friends with and every time, it’s helped me meet some cool people. It’s one of the main reasons I am glad I came back; otherwise, I would have missed the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people I plan to keep in touch with after graduation.

I didn’t build a strong social circle my first time at college, and having one now, I realize how important friends are and how they can contribute to your success. I attribute a lot of my success to them.  It’s great to have a good support system of friends to build you up and remind you of your accomplishments when the doubt starts to creep in. 

A major concern for most students is how to fund their education. Can you elaborate on your financial challenges and how balancing work and school has impacted your overall experience?

Having already completed a prior bachelor's degree from ISU, I didn’t qualify for most scholarships, so I have been working multiple part-time jobs to help pay for my schooling. It was a big adjustment going from a regular stable income to not being able to work as many hours as I wanted and also having to fund my tuition myself, and it was a decision I was worried I would regret going back to school. As I get towards the finish line of my degree, I know it was completely worth it, but I empathize with anyone who has decided not to complete a degree. Knowing how much of an impact coming back to school has made on my life socially, emotionally, financially, etc., also helped me stick with it when I was struggling because I knew I had invested myself in this decision and it wouldn’t be fair to myself to give up now.

One of the ways that you are involved on campus is as a peer mentor. What motivated you to apply for this role?

Wrapping up my first year back at Iowa State, I got an email towards the end of the spring semester with a job description for peer mentoring. It detailed how they were looking for students to teach an orientation class for roughly 30 computer science freshman students each week and to connect them as they navigate the big adjustment to life as a college student at ISU. I immediately knew I wanted to apply to this role for one main reason: I wanted to ensure that other freshman students didn’t have the same rough experience. I knew it would be worth it if I could help at least one student struggle less during their first semester. I had a similar mentoring role in the past when I worked as a First-Year Honors Program (FYHP) leader as a sophomore, where I mentored a group of 12 freshman honors program students and created and taught a curriculum to them over the semester, so I knew that I loved mentoring others and watching students grow and develop over time. COM S 101 was set up differently when I took the class, so I didn’t have the same mentorship that students are provided now, but I like the opportunity that incoming students are given, and I think it sets them up for success. The most rewarding thing was getting to know a little about each of my students. What their hobbies are, why they decided to come to Iowa State, what classes they are worried about, etc. I enjoyed hearing about their career fair experiences, and it made me excited to hear when they got an interview or did well on an assignment. They worked hard this semester to pass the class and made my job easy. When the class ended, I was sad to see them go, but I think they were relieved to have more free time and fewer assignments! I’m excited to see where this new chapter in life takes them, and I know they will all do great things. 

How has your entire journey shaped you, and what are your thoughts as you step into the next chapter of your life?

Overall, it feels surreal to be graduating. A few years ago, I thought that finishing my degree would be one of those things that got away from me, and I was never able to complete it. Last year, I thought I was making a big, expensive mistake and would be a walking example of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This year, I realize how much I have grown in all aspects of my life in the last year and that I have overcome a major hurdle and turned it into an extremely positive experience. I will miss being a student at Iowa State, but I am excited to see what my second chance at a new chapter of my life brings me!