Since graduating from Utah State University this past spring, alumna Reagan Hoopes has been learning her way around Utah’s sprawling Hill Air Force Base and discovering how augmented reality technology can create innovative military training scenarios.
“It’s kind of like Pokémon GO, where you blend virtual reality with physical reality simultaneously,” says the distance runner who completed a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a 4.0 GPA and Mountain West Scholar-Athlete academic honors. “You’re combining digital information with physical exploration of the real world, allowing you to see both in real-time.”
Recruited to the Air Force’s competitive Palace Acquire (PAQ) civilian entry-level science and engineering program, Hoopes is embarking on a full-time career that will allow her to pursue graduate studies in computer science within the next two years. It’s an opportunity the Waunakee, Wisconsin native could scarcely imagine when she entered Utah State in Fall 2019.
“I chose Utah State because I wanted to compete in track and cross country at the collegiate level, and because I received a USU Presidential Scholarship,” Hoopes says. “My athletic focus was clear, but my academic focus on a specific major was less certain.”
She initially pursued outdoor product design, but soon switched to food science. Between her freshman and sophomore years at Utah State, Hoopes undertook her first computer science class.
“It was online and concentrated — squished into seven weeks,” she says. “I’d never done coding before and worried I’d be behind my peers, but I dug in and gave it a try.”
Turns out, computer science was a good fit for Hoopes.
“I really like problem-solving, and I’ve always been strong in math,” she says. “I also credit the Computer Science Coaching Center with helping me stay on course and getting me ‘unstuck’ when I hit coding obstacles. It was really great to have help from peers I could turn to, when needed.”
The timing was also auspicious, as the COVID pandemic forced in-person classes to close. With the 2020 spring track and fall cross-country seasons cancelled, the Aggie harrier was ready to settle into an academic major.
“Our coaches did a really great job keeping us motivated and our spirits up,” says Hoopes, who received the 2023 Joe E. Whitesides Award, one of the university’s top honors for student-athletes.
The most difficult part, she says, was not knowing how long the lockdown would last.
“As an athlete, you want to perform and see your progress,” Hoopes says, “But we continued to train and, while we couldn’t compete, we still had some intersquad races among our USU team.”
Her discipline and time management skills honed in athletics served her well as she pursued computer science, Hoopes says. “As an athlete, you learn to take care of your physical and mental health, and to deal with setbacks. All of those things helped me with my academic challenges, too.”
Hoopes credits computer science faculty member Erik Falor with helping her explore career options and take advantage of professional opportunities. Between her junior and senior years, Hoopes was accepted to a highly competitive National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates internship at Boise State University, where she pursued a novel, blockchain-based solution for collecting and storing scientific workflow information.
“At each step in my USU career, I had a lot of encouragement,” she says.
One of those moments came as she started her junior year, when Hoopes was awarded a College of Science academic scholarship.
“I was so grateful for the support,” she says. “It boosted my confidence and it also lessened my financial burdens. I could focus on performing my best athletically and academically.”
Pursuing computer science, Hoopes says, was a fortuitous path.
“I feel there are no limits to opportunities in computer science,” she says. “It can be applied in so many disciplines and the possibilities are endless. I’m excited about the long-term and the experiences I’ll have an opportunity to pursue.”
To those like her who began their academic career with scant knowledge of information technology, Hoopes says, “Don’t let it stop you.”
“I understand imposter syndrome and lack of confidence, but Utah State is a great place to undertake new challenges,” Hoopes says. “USU has people and resources to help you succeed.”
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