Monika Stepanyan
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Monika Stepanyan: Computer Science as a Pathway for the Development of Armenia

5 min read

YEREVAN, Armenia — Monika Stepanyan received both her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (BSCS ‘19) as well as Master of Science in Computer and Information Science (‘21) from the American University of Armenia (AUA). Throughout her graduate studies, she simultaneously worked as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for various courses at the Akian College of Science and Engineering (CSE) and later joined CSE as an Adjunct Lecturer in Fall 2021. She currently teaches courses in Artificial Intelligence and Data Structures. 

What influenced your choice of majoring in Computer and Information Science (CIS), and why did you choose AUA? How is the knowledge you have gained in your major contributing to Armenia?

My choice of AUA for graduate studies was mainly influenced by the overwhelmingly positive experience I had as an undergraduate student there. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, I had the option of studying abroad within a more concrete specialization, but I wasn’t sure which exact field I should pursue. Thus, my options were to continue my studies in computer science (CS) either at my alma mater or abroad. Naturally, I opted to stay in my country and return to AUA.

During my master’s studies, I chose the software engineering track while also deepening my knowledge in the fields of machine learning and data science. The two years I spent studying and also working as a TA shaped me into the person I am today and gave me the strength and courage to continue my career in the field of education. I believe that with the knowledge and experience I have gained from my studies, I have the potential to make a positive impact in the development of the Armenian IT sphere and education.

Tell us more about your field of interest. How did your studies at AUA shape your career preferences?

I have always loved math and wanted to choose a career that would be math-related. At the same time, I was allured by the field of art and had a passion for creative work. The desire to combine math with creativity had influenced my decision to enroll in the CS undergraduate program at AUA; the creative potential of CS is unbounded, and all of that is powered by math.

While I was sure that CS would satisfy my appetite for math and creativity, I had little idea about particular fields within the discipline. Therefore, almost all of my current field-related pursuits were influenced by my six years of study at AUA. Through AUA, I discovered my passion for logic, game theory, artificial intelligence, computer graphics, computer-aided design, and bioinformatics. I am always looking for ways to integrate concepts from these fields in my work and will possibly pursue a Ph.D. in one of those fields. 

You have been a student in CS at AUA and have had the experience of being a TA, afterward also working as an instructor. What has that transition been like for you?

I have always had the urge to share knowledge and help others understand the amazing concepts of math. So, from the first semester of my undergraduate studies at AUA, I organized informal problem-solving sessions with my classmates which we called “mini PSS.” I was planning to become a TA during my senior year at CS, but a new policy made it impossible for undergraduate students to work as such. 

My dream suddenly came true during my first semester at CIS, when Dr. Varduhi Yegiazaryan offered me a teaching assistantship in the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course. This sparked our continued collaboration throughout the two years of my graduate studies. Eventually, I advanced to teaching the Artificial Intelligence course alongside Dr. Yegiazaryan.

My experience as a TA has contributed significantly to the planning, preparation, organizational, grading, and public speaking skills that I now utilize as an instructor. Perhaps the most important aspect of my work as a TA was developing relationships with students to better support and guide them. My motto as a TA was “Be the TA that you would want to have yourself,” and not much has changed since: I now strive to be the instructor that I myself would want to have.

Tell us about your current teaching. What courses do you teach, and what is the most exciting part of your work? Do you think that the knowledge and experience you received as a student at AUA help in your teaching?

I started my teaching career at AUA in the fall of 2021 with the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course. This semester, I am teaching Data Structures. Additionally, I am a member of the Faculty Senate.

It is difficult for me to pinpoint a single best feature of the teaching experience, as I find almost every part of my job exciting. One particularly thrilling aspect of my work as an instructor is the support and attitude of my students. I imagine that having an instructor who is almost the same age as you can seem surreal and cause issues of cognitive dissonance; however, to this day, I have received only positive and respectful treatment from students, for which I am immensely thankful.

Studying at AUA certainly helped me develop my teaching strategies. As an AUA student, I had many fantastic instructors who were my role models, so I have been trying to assume their virtues to construct the mental blueprint of the instructor I strive to be.

I am grateful for the opportunity to become an instructor right after graduation, as I am well aware of students’ struggles and can relate to them well. I remember how, when I was a student, a subject would seem so difficult at the beginning of a course but would become so simple by the end. Now, I want to convey to my students that there is nothing to be afraid of, that everything will get better in due time.

How do you think the knowledge students receive from the course you are teaching will help them in the future?

While university life and experience are not limited to only gaining academic knowledge, learning still constitutes the core of academia. I believe that the knowledge students acquire in CS and data science fields will prove practical and helpful for students in their future work or studies, should they decide to stay in these fields. 

These courses could also provide students with other opportunities and open unexpected doors, just as the Artificial Intelligence course did for me. Even a single class can become a life-changing experience for someone, and I wish that one day I will impact my students’ lives in the same positive way.

In general, how would you define career success? Where do you see yourself in the future?

I would define career success as being able to do what attains maximum utility, whether in the form of recognition, impact, fulfillment, professional achievement, monetary compensation, and so on  or even a combination of all of these. As long as the return or compensation for the work one does exceeds the time and effort spent on it, I would call it a success. 

I have chosen the career of an instructor, and I hope that it will choose me in return. My dream is to have the opportunity to stay in my homeland and contribute to the development of Armenian education and AUA itself.