Computer science student selected as Senior of the Year 2020

March 23, 2020   /   by Ryley McGinnis

Jesse McCandlish headshot

Jesse McCandlish, a computer science major, was named Mason's Alumni Association's 2020 Senior of the Year. Photo by Christopher Bobo.

When Jesse McCandlish first walked onto Mason’s Fairfax Campus her freshman year, she knew it was home. She then found an even more comfortable place in her computer science (CS) major.

McCandlish, who was given the 2020 Senior of the Year award by George Mason University's Alumni Association, never intended on remaining a computer science major. She wanted to help people. Her parents had taught her the importance of doing so, so when she first came to Mason she put down computer science with every intention of changing it to psychology, English, or other potential choices.

“I took a few basic level CS classes, and I fell in love,” says McCandlish. “Every time I considered changing my major, I would remember my programming classes, and I knew I would miss it.”

Good professors, she says, also made the difference. She specifically cites Mark Snyder, an associate professor in the department, for her success at the beginning of her computer science career.

She says computer science is a puzzle, and while it excites her, it is difficult. But she didn’t give up, and that’s what she teaches to the students she tutors through the Early Identification Program (EIP), an initiative at Mason designed to identify potential first-generation college students while in middle school and high school and guide them through their education to help better prepare them for a college career. She got involved in EIP her first semester freshmen year--teaching physics and calculus, and talking to students about STEM.

“The biggest thing that scared me coming into CS was that I knew absolutely nothing. But I realized college is built expecting you don’t know anything, so don’t be afraid of not knowing,” says McCandlish.

Her work with the community, her drive, and more are the reasons she was named the Alumni Association's Senior of the Year.

“When I first got the email that a faculty member had nominated me, I honestly thought it was spam,” says McCandlish. “I just couldn’t believe it. I sent it to my dad, and he and my family won’t let me live it down that I couldn’t believe I was nominated. It was amazing.”

Snyder understands why McCandlish was nominated and later received the award. “I'm so happy for Jesse to get this recognition. I had the privilege of seeing her in her introductory CS classes during her freshman year, and she was stellar. Seeing her step up as an undergraduate teaching assistant, a researcher, and helping her peers and community in so many other ways has been gratifying to witness,” says Snyder. “I think Jesse really embodies the spirit of exploring all the opportunities on campus to their fullest, and I hope many others can follow in her footsteps."

When McCandlish found out she won, she says the first thing she did was call her parents. “After I finally accepted that I was nominated I looked at the past winners, and I was sure that I couldn’t measure up. So, when I got the call that I won, I was super shocked but super honored and excited to tell my parents.”

McCandlish is excited about her next steps after graduation as well. She is deciding between going to get her master’s degree or working in industry. One thing she knows is she wants to work on human-computer interaction. “I like helping people, and I like computers, so when I found this area of research it seemed to be the perfect fit,” she says.

With her future to look forward to, she says she will definitely miss Mason once her last class is over. “I’ve really found my home in my program and my job with EIP, it will be sad to let it all go.”