In January 2021, the computer science department launched a semester-long set of virtual programs to celebrate its 50th anniversary on a special dedicated site, with a video message from Cal Ribbens, computer science department head, and Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering.

In the message, Ribbens thanked the Hokie alumni nation for the support it has shown during this unprecedented time. “I want to thank everyone who has reached out, who has been engaged through our town halls and other virtual alumni events, and most importantly, for supporting our students in many ways,” he said.

“I’m proud to share that our computer science programs, both undergraduate and graduate, are now the largest in the College of Engineering – and growing rapidly,” said Ross in the video. She went on to acknowledge the role the Department of Computer Science plays in transforming the landscape at the Blacksburg campus, as well as redefining a new chapter of graduate education in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area with the new Innovation Campus

In 1970, the Department of Computer Science was established under its founding department head, the late George Gorsline. Two years later, it would move from a single trailer near the Duck Pond to McBryde Hall, which would become its long-term home. 

Fifty years later, in 2020, the department graduated its largest computer science class to date with 311 undergraduate degrees, 49 master’s degrees, and 28 doctorates awarded, quadrupling its total graduation rate from 1974.

Circa 1974, students line the hallways of McBryde Hall waiting to get into the punch card room. Department of Computer Science photo file.
Circa 1974, students line the hallways of McBryde Hall waiting to get into the punch card room. Department of Computer Science photo file.
A first look at the new student collaboration area on the first floor of Torgersen Hall, which will be fully operational when more students are back taking classes in-person. While the department will still maintain a small presence in McBryde Hall, the new space in Torgersen Hall will have  new offices for academic advisors, dedicated space for teaching assistants, a tutoring center, and additional faculty offices. Photo by Spencer Roberts for Virginia Tech.
A first look at the new student collaboration area on the first floor of Torgersen Hall, which will be fully operational when more students are back taking classes in-person. While the department will still maintain a small presence in McBryde Hall, the new space in Torgersen Hall will have new offices for academic advisors, dedicated space for teaching assistants, a tutoring center, and additional faculty offices. Photo by Spencer Roberts for Virginia Tech.

The 50th anniversary site will continue to be refreshed with new content each month, inviting alumni and friends to participate in a variety of virtual activities. Programs include faculty and alumni panels, 50 for 50 alumni spotlights, a virtual student research showcase, and a special virtual 5K event for alumni from around the world to come together March 20-21.

Computer science students Jonah Bishop and Alyssa Farrell designed the commemorative T-shirt and decal that will be sent to all participants that register for the 5K. A portion of the race registration fee will be directed to the Computer Science Department Annual Fund in support of student groups and activities, such as experiential learning and departmental growth.

The department's 50th anniversary commemorative T-shirt designed by sophomore computer science student Jonah Bishop.
The department's 50th anniversary commemorative T-shirt, designed by sophomore computer science student Jonah Bishop.
The department's 50th anniversary commemorative decal designed by senior computer science student Alyssa Farrell.
The department's 50th anniversary commemorative decal, designed by senior computer science student Alyssa Farrell.

The 50 for 50 spotlights are an ongoing effort to highlight 50 of the department's alumni from across all decades in a Q&A format, with questions tailored for the individual's background and professional experiences. 

A selection of the Department of Computer Science 50 for 50 alumni spotlights.
A selection of the Department of Computer Science 50 for 50 alumni spotlights.

The anniversary site is also a source of nostalgia, with alumni encouraged to submit their photos and favorite memories of the department. A commemorative video featuring alumni and department leadership share their experiences and look ahead to what the future holds.

Loading player for https://video.vt.edu/media/1_eibej4c5...

“I know that a virtual celebration isn’t how the department pictured hosting its 50th anniversary, but I think it will be bigger that way,” said Megan Underwood, a 2008 computer science alumna and IT risk and security manager at Delta Air Lines. “Blacksburg isn’t the easiest to get to and this will mean that even more people will be able to participate. Personally, I know I can’t wait to add a new computer science shirt to my collection from the virtual 5k — my first in 13 years.”

Underwood, who serves on the department’s alumni advisory board, also credits the unofficial CS@VT alumni Facebook group for helping her to feel more plugged into the department and its alumni base. “Whether you programmed on punch cards or laptops, we are all bonded by those late nights trying to debug our projects,” she said. “It’s great knowing that I can pose a question or share a fun picture and the online community will engage. With all of the impressive things our alumni have done, I am so proud to be able to say that I earned my degree from the same program.”

For more information about the 50th anniversary events, please contact Hayley Roulston, alumni relations coordinator, for the Department of Computer Science.

— Written by Jenise L. Jacques