Notre Dame valedictorian reflects on community in computer science
Kathryn Muchnick | Friday, May 19, 2023
Kristen Friday, a computer science major in the college of engineering, has been selected as Notre Dame’s class of 2023 valedictorian. Friday will deliver the valedictory address during the commencement ceremony.
Friday hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she lived in Lewis Hall during her time on campus. Though she began Notre Dame as a mechanical engineering major, Friday gravitated toward computer science as a less physical application of her love for problem-solving.
“Originally coming into college, I feared the abstractness of computer science,” Friday said. “You can see everything physically with mechanical engineering, but computer science, it’s like, OK, you develop this code, but there’s nothing you can necessarily see.”
Speaking with upperclassmen about their industry experience helped her get over that hesitation, and Friday said she finds the “internal problem solving” required to debug code very satisfying.
In addition to her computer science major, Friday completed the corporate practice minor, a collaboration between the college of Engineering and Mendoza college of business, to help her “speak the language of business.”
“I think it’s really important that everyone has a little bit of knowledge and understanding of personal finance,” Friday said. “And also I could potentially see myself doing an MBA later on or just ending up in a management role.”
Friday accumulated a 4.00 grade point average and was a member of the Dean’s List each semester. She attributes her success to support from her friends, family and teachers.
“I think in particular, the CS [computer science] community is really, really tight … We all want to help each other succeed. And that collaboration aspect of the curriculum has just been instrumental in helping me learn and helping me achieve this success as well,” Friday said. “I definitely couldn’t have done it on my own without any of those people and others motivating me to be better.”
Though Friday maintained a perfect GPA, she said grades were never the motivation.
“I came to Notre Dame not wanting to focus on GPA like we all did in high school,” Friday said. “It was more: ‘I have four years here. I just want to be the best that I can be and get as much out of this as I can.’”
Outside of the classroom, Friday played club tennis and co-founded the Women in Computer Science club. After originally becoming involved in the Society for Women Engineers (SWE), Friday realized there was a lack of resources provided to women specifically interested in computer science.
“I felt a little disadvantaged, with recruiting [in SWE], like big tech companies weren’t really coming to us. And it took a lot of effort on our part to get those positions,” Friday said.
With her co-president, Friday has supported women in tech by hosting computer science-specific career panels, partnering with Habitat for Humanity and building a community of CS women.
“Being able to provide that leadership for younger students, that mentorship and helping them along in their journey has really helped me feel the fulfillment that I’m giving back what I’ve learned throughout my freshman, sophomore, junior year,” Friday said.
Friday said she is especially honored to be selected as valedictorian during the 150th anniversary of the college of anniversary and the 50th anniversary of women at Notre Dame.
“This truly means a lot that the women in my club, the underclassmen, can see a woman in tech thriving in this position,” she said.
After graduation, Friday will be working as a software engineer with Palantir Technologies in Washington D.C. She said her decision to pursue software engineering was solidified by her summer internships with Hitachi Rail, IBM and Microsoft, though she is excited about a new application of her computer science skills at Palantir.
Palantir aggregates customer data to build artificial intelligence software that makes faster decisions. For example, the company is working on defense AI software to decide which aircraft are enemies.
“[The computer science major] is very theoretical at the end of the day, so we’re learning you know, a lot of the math behind our algorithms, runtime, all that nitty gritty complex stuff, but there’s not as much integration and application of it on a day to day basis,” Friday said. Entering the workforce provides an opportunity to apply the knowledge she accumulated in the major, she added.
Like all valedictorian nominees, Friday wrote the valedictory address before she knew whether or not she had been chosen. The first draft came easily to her, but when she showed it to her siblings, they were not convinced.
“I really trust the opinion of my siblings. I said, you know, can you read this? I was really happy with it at [that] point,” Friday said. “They got back to me and were like: ‘I think ChatGPT wrote this. It sounds like you typed how to write a valedictorian speech, and this is what it gave you.’”
After working through several more drafts with her siblings, who Friday said were hugely supportive, she is really excited about the final product.
“I think even if I had not been chosen, it was a really positive experience to reflect on these past four years,” she said. “To have to put it concisely on five pages was a really cool opportunity.”
Despite her passion for computer science, Friday said that the biggest lesson she learned at Notre Dame is that life is about more than problem-solving every day.
“No one can walk a journey of academia or of life in general on their own. It all takes support from one another,” Friday said. “It’s about the people you’re with to walk the journey with and how you can be fully present and yourself with other people.”