College student reflects on getting started in open source

On the power of open source tools, and why the movement matters.
425 readers like this
425 readers like this
Woman sitting in front of her computer

Ray Smith

I just completed the first semester of my second year in college, and I'm reflecting on what I learned in my classes. One class, in particular, stood out to me: "Foundations of an Open Source World," taught by Dr. Bryan Behrenshausen at Duke University. I enrolled in the class at the last minute because it seemed interesting and, if I’m being honest because it fit my schedule.

On the first day, Dr. Behrenshausen asked if we students knew or had used any open source programs. Until that day I had hardly heard the term “open source” and certainly wasn't cognizant of any products that fell into that category. As the semester went on, however, it dawned on me that the passion I have towards my career aspirations would not exist without open source.

Audacity and GIMP

My interest in technology started at age 12. Charged with the task of cutting music for my dance team, I searched the web for hours until I found Audacity, an open source audio editor. Audacity opened doors for me; no longer was I confined to repetitive eight-counts of the same beat. I started receiving requests left and right from others who wanted unique renditions of their favorite songs.

Weeks later, I stumbled upon a GIF on the internet of a cat with a Pop-Tart torso and a rainbow trail flying through space. I searched “how to make moving images” and discovered GIMP, an open source graphics editor, and used it to create a GIF of "The Simpsons" for my brother’s birthday present.

My budding interest grew into a full-time obsession: creating artwork on my clunky, laggy laptop. Since I didn’t have much luck with charcoal, paint, or watercolors, I used graphic design as an outlet for creative expression. I spent hours in the computer lab learning the basics of HTML and CSS on W3Schools so that I could fill an online portfolio with my childish GIFs. A few months later, I published my first website on WordPress.

Why open source

Open source allows us to not only achieve our goals but to discover interests that drive those goals.

Fast-forward nearly a decade. Many things have changed, although some have stayed consistent: I still make graphics (mostly flyers), edit music for a dance group, and design websites (sleeker, more effective ones, I hope). The products I used have gone through countless version upgrades. But the most dramatic change is my approach to open source resources.

Considering the significance of open source products in my life has made me cherish the open movement and its mission. Open source projects remind me that there are initiatives in tech that promote social good and self-learning without being exclusive to those who are socioeconomically advantaged. My middle-school self, like countless others, couldn’t afford to purchase the Adobe Creative Suite, GarageBand, or Squarespace. Open source platforms allow us to not only achieve our goals but to discover interests that drive those goals by broadening our access networks.

My advice? Enroll in a class on a whim. It just might change the way you view the world.

Christine is a sophomore at Duke University studying computer science and visual media studies. Her interests lie at the intersection between technology, art, and culture. She aims to study how applying openness to different areas of society can achieve social good and progress.

2 Comments

> Until that day I had hardly heard the term "open source" and certainly wasn't cognizant of any products that fell into that category.

I found this statement interesting, especially for young students entering technical fields. Granted (like the author later states), this was ten years ago (c. 2007?). It makes me wonder if there is a large (or small) percentage of students today, starting programming courses for the first time, that aren't aware of Open Source in general terms.

Hi Christine! Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like the last minute decision to enroll worked out really well for you. I think you got it perfect when you say that open source also helps us discover new interests and passions. It was the same experience for me. Best of luck on your continued journey into open source!

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