skip to content

Department of Computer Science and Technology

She was conditioned by a tutor to believe that "girls aren't smart enough for Computer Science". But two years into her degree here, Vasundhara Agarwal now knows that's just not true. 

Here the Newnham College student tells us what brought her to Cambridge, and how — after initially taking up a place to study Engineering — she is now studying the subject that most appeals to her.

"Before I started my degree at Cambridge, my understanding of Computer Science was limited to what I had been taught in school — which was basically some very straightforward loop-based programming in Java.

"I remember being acutely aware of the pronounced difference in IT skills between me and all the boys at school. They could very confidently take a computer apart and piece it back together in minutes, rattling off the processor's specs as they did so, while I’d just observe them, mouth open in awe and amazement.

"This feeling was further exacerbated by the uncomfortably demeaning behaviour of a Computer Science tutor back home who talked down his female students every opportunity he got, and effectively brainwashed us into thinking that girls aren't smart enough for something as intricate as Computer Science.

"This put me off the idea of going further in this field — so much so that I initially didn’t even apply for Computer Science at Cambridge. Instead, I applied to study Engineering, with the plan that I would ultimately major in some niche subfield where I would have the same prior knowledge as everyone else.


"I feel strongly about Outreach — we are missing out on so many potentially incredible female students just because they don’t think they are worthy enough."

"Somewhere in the depths of my consciousness, I knew Computer Science is what really appealed to me. And talking to some recent Computer Science grads helped dispel the false illusion of my inferiority that I had so easily given in to. I requested my college to allow me to switch to Computer Science and fortunately, they agreed to it. Two years into my degree, I cannot be more satisfied with the choice I made. 

"That is one of the reasons why I have joined the department's Outreach Committee. I feel strongly about Outreach — we are missing out on so many potentially incredible female students just because they don’t think they are worthy enough."

What do you like most about the course and Cambridge in general?
"For me, the best part about the Computer Science Tripos here at Cambridge is how it is simultaneously extremely fun and intellectually challenging. The course is very cleverly designed and ensures that the students who come in with prior knowledge of Computer Science do not hold an unfair advantage over those who are starting from scratch but are just as curious and excited about the subject as the former.

"The day doesn't end with the last lecture — instead you get the opportunity to cement your understanding of the concepts through supervisions with people who are experts in their fields. It is rather fascinating to look back at courses at the end of every term and realise how ingeniously they built upon the content you might have been taught earlier in the year.

What advice would you offer to female students considering applying here this autumn?
"Don’t make the same mistakes I did. You are good enough regardless of what anyone else tells you. Cambridge isn’t looking for someone who knows their computer specifications by heart or who can talk at great length about the latest model of GPUs — they're looking for people who are enthusiastic, curious and and willing to put in hard work.

"And once you are here (or anywhere else, for that matter), do NOT hesitate to ask those 'silly' questions… Trust me, everyone else is almost as equally clueless as you feel you are about most things!"

  • Read more about the experiences of female computer scientists here in the women@CL pages of this website.


Published by Rachel Gardner on Tuesday 28th July 2020