Date Posted: 6/25/2021

The Department of Computer Science is pleased to celebrate recent graduates Destiny Nwafor and Ashneel Das, winners of this year's Jonathan E. Marx Memorial Senior Prize.

Each year prizes are awarded to two graduating seniors who have majored in computer science. Winners are selected based on demonstrated leadership qualities, extra-curricular activities (both in and out of Computer Science), and for being friendly and helpful to classmates and others. Additionally, all applicants must have at least a 3.0 cumulative grade point average. To be considered for this prize, a student is required to share a one-page essay that includes a brief outline of achievements and activities.

Jonathan Eric Marx, a June 1985 computer science graduate from New Rochelle, NY, died on July 9, 1985, after an accidental fall while skiing in Switzerland. To pay tribute to his life, the Jonathan E. Marx Memorial Fund was established at Cornell by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alan Marx.

Jonathan is remembered as a warm, friendly, outgoing young man, who cared about people, and who had an enormous amount of enthusiasm for life and for his Cornell education. He was an avid athlete, an active member of the Association of Computer Science Undergraduates, a member of Sigma Pi fraternity, a tutor for the mathematics department, and a grader and consultant for CS482(0).

With their permission, it is our pleasure to share with readers excerpts from both Destiny Nwafor and Ashneel Das' prize-winning essays. In these remarks, they make evident the spirit and the good works emblematic of Marx awardees.

Selections from Destiny Nwafor's 2021 Marx Memorial Senior Prize essay:

I came into Cornell having had minimal experience in programming, but what I had learned greatly interested me and left me curious to learn more. During my first introduction to programming, I also learned that my identities—being Black and being a woman—are largely underrepresented in tech, and I wanted to change that. These two drivers encouraged me to join the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) as a Freshman Representative. The following year, I served as the Programs Chair, and the year after as President, which I still proudly serve. Being a part of NSBE has been an instrumental arc in my college career. It is where I have found mentors, friends, and helped build community for myself and others. 

Witnessing the invaluable benefits of building community I aided in forging through NSBE gave me the courage to do so outside of Cornell. The summer before my sophomore year, I joined Rewriting the Code (RTC), an organization of women in technology focused on career, mentorship, and skill development. as a Fellow and Student Council member. That summer, I met with RTC’s Founder and President Sue Harnett where we shared our first talks on creating a community within RTC that catered to addressing the unique hurdles for Black women in tech. That fall, I, along with four other women, co-founded Black Wings to fill that gap. Being a Black Wings and RTC leader has been one of the most fulfilling facets of my college career: I have helped usher in company partnerships with Goldman Sachs, Apple, and Reboot Representation; host our first annual hackathon; and grow the community of Black Wings women over sixty percent in our first five months. 

As a result of creating support systems for myself and others, my confidence in my abilities has gradually blossomed over the years. It began with my communities in NSBE and Underrepresented Minorities in Computing (URMC) by attending events and conferences such as NSBE Nationals and ACM’s Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, of which I received a scholarship to attend my sophomore and junior years. Additionally, I found encouragement to continue pursuing computer science through Twitter’s #EarlyBird program for first-year Black and Latinx students to gain hands-on technical experience in industry. After the program, I volunteered as a technical intern with CollegePrep, a startup aiming to provide free standardized test preparation tutoring to students in need. From Tapia, I secured my first internship with IBM Research as a software developer the following summer, and the year after with Microsoft as a software engineering intern. I am extremely grateful for having had these opportunities to expand my skill set, work with talented engineers, and learn in new environments and company cultures. It has given me greater confidence to continue growing as a software engineer and foster change for greater diversity and inclusivity within these spaces. 

One way in which I have been able to be a voice for diversity and inclusivity is within student government at Cornell. My junior year, I joined the Appropriations Committee of the Student Assembly because I yearned for a greater insight into how change is made through policy. Soon after, I discovered the many grievances students of color on the Assembly shared on the lack of advocacy. Thus, the Cornell Student Assembly Black Caucus (CSABC) was founded that same semester. I and ten other students on the Assembly became the founding and original members with the goal of advocating for Black students and Black issues through resolution-making, public statements, and community building. 

Furthermore on campus, I have taught as a teaching assistant for INFO 4240: Designing Technology for Social Impact. My first semester as a TA was my junior fall during which I graded assignments and assisted students in lecture and this semester, I taught two discussion sessions. Teaching brings me great joy because I have the privilege to watch students’ knowledge and understanding grow. I also got to experience this last winter when I attended CodeAfrique in Ghana with Professors Hakim Weatherspoon and Robbert Van Renesse. There, I taught computer science fundamentals in Python to students ranging from beginning middle school to ending high school. 

Last, but not least, outside of my professional and academic endeavours, I have remained an active member of the Cornell dance community. From my freshman to junior year, I actively danced with BreakFree Dance Troupe where I competed in a dance competition and danced at our annual showcase as well as guest performances. From my sophomore to senior year, I danced with Atelier 320, a modern dance group under the PMA department directed by Jumay Chu. With Atelier 320, I have performed in both the Mini Locally Grown and Locally Grown dance concerts as well as a guest performance in the Johnson Museum. Dance has prevailed as an integral aspect of my Cornell experience not only because of the physical health benefits, but mental health benefits. It allows me to express myself and my liberation.

Selections from Ashneel Das' 2021 Marx Memorial Senior Prize essay:

When I first arrived on Cornell’s campus, I knew almost nothing about what I wanted to do during my time here, except for one thing—I wanted to be a computer science major. Above all, the reason I wanted to major in computer science was because I had a passion for developing technology that could positively impact the lives of other people. I loved creating software that people could actually use—software that could solve problems. In high school, I saw others face a variety of problems and worked on projects to solve them, from an app that would help generate question sets for my school’s sciencebowl club, to hackathon projects that taught young children about the fundamentals of electrical circuits.

Despite the projects I worked on throughout high school, I still felt as though I had barely dipped my toes into the water. Cornell presented me with the opportunity to take countless courses to hone my programming skills, and opportunitiesoutside of the classroom to use those skills to help others around me. During the spring semester of my freshman year, I applied to join an engineering project team known as Cornell Design & Tech Initiative (DTI). This organization caught my eye because of its tagline—“Creating Technology for Community Impact.” This group of over 80 developers and designers worked to develop apps that solve real problems faced by other students.

When I first joined DTI, I worked on an app called Flux, which reports real time occupancy of campus facilities to other students so they can make an informed decision on where to study or dine. We released the app the very same semester I joined, and I immediately got feedback from my peers. My roommate saw me come back late on the night we deployed the app and told me that he downloaded it and already loved how much it helped him. This was only the beginning, however, and I knew that it could only go upward from here. My next two semesters on DTI, I moved up to a management position and led the Flux subteam to develop advanced features for the app, such as gym capacity and menus for eateries. I also served as a mentor in this new position, teaching our new Android, iOS, and back-end developers about new tools and technologies and helping them settle into the team. During my spring semester, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I worked to ensure that the members of our team were supported in every way possible.

I applied to be the team lead of DTI, and was thrilled when I was informed that I had been selected for the position. Though I knew leading over 80 members would pose an immense challenge, I was ready for the task, and hoped I could lead us to develop even more apps that could benefit others. During my time as team lead, we have been able to introduce four new projects and successfully run two training course initiatives. The impact I’ve been able to make on the Cornell community through my time on DTI is more than anything I could have ever imagined, and I am extremely thankful that I was able to join this organization and accomplish my freshman year dream to help others.

As a Cornell CS student, I have also had the opportunity to help other students through my work as a teaching assistant. I started as a TA during my freshman spring, when I applied to be a TA for CS2043: Unix Tools and Scripting. Although I’d never taken the course and had no prior TA experience, I was familiar with the content and I hoped I could share that knowledge with others. I was selected for the position, and worked closely with the professor to develop an interactive website for students, create new course content, and help students increase their understanding of Unix. At the end of the semester, I was selected for the TA Recognition Award for my work.

My next few semesters, I continued to TA numerous courses. The fall semester of my next two years, I was a TA for CS2112: Honors Object Oriented Programming and Data Structures, for which I helped lead lab sections and develop assignments/course content. I have also been a TA for CS4700: Artificial Intelligence, and CS4670: Computer Vision, helping write and grade assignments, and hold office hours. In addition, I led and taught one of my project team’s training course initiatives, Trends in Web Development, for three semesters.

I am extremely grateful for all of the opportunities that Cornell has given me to positively shape the lives of my fellow students. Looking back at my freshman self, I could have never imagined that I would one day be leading a team to making apps for social impact on campus, or that I would one day be playing a vital role in helping students have a positive experience in CS courses, or even that I would one day be able to impart all the knowledge I have gained onto those around me. I hope that this is only the start, and that as I move on from being a Cornell undergraduate, I will continue to have plenty of chances to change the lives of those around me for the better.