Sitting at his gate in the Baltimore airport, Daniel Gritsko was simply passing time. One of more than 170 students set to graduate from Georgia Tech’s online M.S. in Computer Science (OMS CS) program, Gritsko was headed to Atlanta to receive his diploma.
He jumped on the OMS CS Slack community and started chatting with fellow almost-graduate Christopher Gearhart.
As they chatted, Gritsko and Gearhart realized they were both Atlanta-bound … and waiting in an airport … that happened to be in Baltimore … for the same plane.
“Turns out,” Gritsko said, “we were sitting about a hundred feet apart.”
Just like that, online colleagues became real, face-to-face acquaintances—a phenomenon that repeated itself several dozen times over as the largest class of graduating students to date gathered in Midtown Atlanta for Georgia Tech’s Fall 2016 Commencement ceremonies. These newest College of Computing alumni brought the overall number of OMS CS graduates to just under 300 since the program launched in January 2014. And they were very glad to be on campus—most for the very first time.
“I’ve been doing this program for two-and-a-half years, and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to meet the people and professors and teaching assistants,” said graduate Pramod Recard, who traveled all the way from India to don his gown and mortarboard. “Getting to do this after so long, and seeing the beautiful Georgia Tech campus, is a really nice experience.”
Freshly minted Georgia Tech alumna Anupama Adhreyas, who also traveled from India, had similar feelings about her graduation experience: “It’s a great opportunity to come here and receive your degree on campus with the others you’ve taken your courses with,” she said.
Not only were the OMS CS grads invited to a special reception held in their honor at the historic Biltmore Hotel near Technology Square, but they also were invited to a campus tour arranged just for them.
Guiding the tour was popular OMS CS instructor David Joyner. A hundred or so participants braved freezing temperatures to meet Yellow Jacket VIPs like Provost Rafael Bras, President Joe Irwin of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, and—of course—Buzz, Georgia Tech’s instantly recognizable mascot. They also got to see such historic landmarks as Bobby Dodd Stadium, Tech Tower, Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, and, of course, the College of Computing’s Klaus Advanced Computing Building and the Georgia Tech Professional Education studio—where many of their OMS CS courses were filmed and produced.
“For the folks who can make it [to Atlanta], this makes you feel more like you’re a part of the Institute and an alumnus,” said graduate Michael Brown, whose journey from North Carolina wasn’t quite as long as some of his classmates’. “There’s a stigma about online education that there’s no actual campus and it’s just run by people in an office building with servers. But with Georgia Tech, it’s exciting for the families that you can come here, see the campus, and meet the people who have helped you earn your degree.”
Indeed, the Thursday-evening reception that preceded Commencement on Friday was marked by the laughs and squeals of small children echoing around the Biltmore’s Georgian Ballroom, as many graduates brought their families with them to share in the celebration. The family atmosphere only added to the sense of community that many OMS CS students appreciate so much about the program.
Whether their interactions happen online in the many OMS CS communities on Slack, Google+, Facebook, and other social networks, or in person through the many local meet-ups that get arranged, or even through the GT-organized trips to conferences like Grace Hopper and Tapia, many OMS CS students say the strength of the program’s human network is one of the things they enjoyed most about being enrolled.
“I attended Grace Hopper 2015 [on a Georgia Tech scholarship], and I’d never been to a conference like that before,” said graduate Dana Sheahen, who traveled from Columbia, Mo., to receive her diploma.
Sheahen definitely made the most of her OMS CS experience. Not only did she make the trip with 19 of her fellow female students to Grace Hopper, but she also served as a teaching assistant for four semesters and co-presented a paper she’d written with Joyner at the 2016 ACM Learning@Scale conference, held in April at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh.
“One day I read about OMS CS in The Wall Street Journal, and it was just perfect for me,” Sheahen said, recalling how she’d first learned about the program. “I didn’t have to move, I didn’t have to quit my job, my lab was my living room—and it was Georgia Tech, for gosh sake. It all just worked out.”
No doubt all of Sheahen’s fellow graduates agree with that assessment—as do Georgia Tech’s leaders at the highest level, who welcomed the newest group of grads with open arms into the ranks of Yellow Jacket alumni.
“It is very important that you all consider yourselves part of Georgia Tech,” Bras told those gathered at the Thursday reception. “You are now part of a 140,000-strong worldwide community of alumni. I hope you use and benefit from the Georgia Tech network, and congratulations to all of you.”
“We are so very proud of you,” said Zvi Galil, John P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing. “Georgia Tech’s reputation rests primarily not on the difficulty of our classes or even the research of our faculty. No, what’s most important aspect is the quality of our graduates and the contributions they make to the world. I know you will continue to make us proud.”