Inspiring grads: Discovering passion for computer science pays off

Kevin Bell (Photo: Fan Wang)

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At first glance the story seems unreal: a high school student with a 1.1 GPA turned college graduate — earning a degree in computer science, no less.

For Kevin Bell, the feat is a real-life milestone, a far-off dream come to fruition.

“When I was younger, if you would have told me that I would be graduating with a computer science degree, I would have called you crazy,” said Bell, who is from Hazel Crest, Illinois. “I really didn’t care about my future like that.”

Bell had other things on his mind. Video games, mostly.

“I did the bare minimum to graduate. I was unmotivated,” Bell said.

That attitude continued when he enrolled in his local community college, but was dismissed due to his grades soon after he started. He turned to the U.S. Navy as another possible career option, but was disqualified from joining.

“I took it as a sign to go back to school, to go with a different mindset and try. To see what I could do if I actually tried,” he said.

So, Bell made a change. He enrolled at Harold Washington College, where he committed to becoming more serious about academics and his future.

“I started to think, ‘What am I going to school for? OK, I like video games, so maybe computer science to work on video games,’ but video games are really hard,” Bell said with a laugh. “But I thought ‘Hey, I like this coding thing, so let me see what this is about.’”

In 2016, he graduated with an associate’s degree in applied science. He transferred to UIC as a Black Tech Scholar and took a 100-level computer science class, which looked at programming in terms of public policy and legal issues such as predictive policing.

“That’s where I really started to say, ‘This is pretty cool. I’m going to figure out how to get into this,’” Bell said.

He also took advantage of the resources and support available to students through places like the UIC cultural centers.

“People from the African American Cultural Center said, ‘Hey man, we see you here often, do you want a job?’ And I became their IT assistant,” he said.

Faculty and staff from the College of Engineering have helped him, too. Thanks in part to a career fair in September, Bell secured a job at Discover as a software engineer, which he’ll start after graduation. But before he accepted the position, he also had interviews with Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

“I’m the first Bell to graduate from college. I’m the first engineer in my family. I haven’t really said that out loud, and it’s crazy to think about,” Bell said.

When he looks back on his time at UIC, he’ll think of the people who have touched his life — and his responsibility to pay it forward.

“I think of this period in my life as a time when I blossomed and as a time where I learned to be mindful of helping others like me because a lot of people here have helped me get where I am,” he said. “I’m ready to excel and tackle what comes next.”