Why study Computer Science at a Liberal Arts College

Picture of Dr. Josiah DykstraEver wondered about the benefits of studying computer science at a liberal arts college? Here are some thoughts from Dr. Josiah Dykstra (’02), one of the 2017 recipients of Hope College’s Young Alumni Award.

Dr. Dykstra, who was a computer science and music double major while an undergraduate at Hope College and received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, currently works as a computer security researcher for the National Security Agency.

Well, I thought, I have some peculiar talents. I’m a spy, for one, something I never envisioned as a student at Hope College. Looking back, however, I’m so thankful that Hope invited me to develop and bring to God the offerings that are particular to my own gifts and characteristics, the honors that I am uniquely able to bring.

I, for example, love exploring. The unknown, the occasional challenge, those are exciting. I love to travel. I love to cook, and almost never make the same thing twice. I liked school because it was an opportunity to learn and think about how the world works. I studied forensics because forensics is a science of uncovering the story of crimes. I wrote a book on science in cyber security to help others be better explorers. I became an intelligence officer because that job is also about figuring out who’s doing what and why.

Hope helped me be a better explorer. I’m so glad that I took political science and sociology and photography in addition to network design. The more I’ve studied cyber security, the more I value its intersection with economics, psychology, and art. One thing I hate about my job is my title: Subject Matter Expert. It’s as if I’ve been rewarded for narrowing my focus and knowing more than another person. A Ph.D. can do this, too. As a former college president said, “The progression of today's college student is to jettison every interest except one and within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less” (Bennington College President Liz Coleman).

I’m not suggesting that we should all be generalists. It isn’t possible for me to know everything about computers today. Modern marvels are the result of collective human expertise and experience. Your car is a great example. We don’t have functional, trustworthy automobiles because of the individual genius of Henry Ford. No, it’s the accumulated effort of collective intelligence of 100 years of automobile explorers. The same is true for science and it’s true for my job as a spy.

I can’t thank Hope enough for helping me develop as an explorer, not only in computer science, but as a laboratory for debating complex and interconnected ideas and questions like what kind of a world are we making and what kind of a world should we be making. My advice to today’s students, and to Hope College, is to think big thoughts, collect diverse perspectives, and think out loud together.