Helping Students Find Belonging in Computing Majors

Elias Gonzalez, an alum and current computer science lecturer at UMD, leads inclusive teaching efforts in the department

When he was a first-generation Latino college student studying computer science at the University of Maryland, Elias Gonzalez didn't often see peers or mentors who looked like him or had similar lived experiences. 

Elias Gonzalez speaking into a mic in front of a screen.
Elias Gonzalez speaking during final presentations at Break Through Tech's Guild program. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Now, as a lecturer in computer science and curriculum innovation lead for Break Through Tech DC at UMD, Gonzalez (B.S. '17, computer science; M.Ed. ’18, curriculum and instruction) serves as that role model for students like him. He is on a mission to ensure that the next generation of tech professionals is more diverse than it is today.

“I loved the challenge and material, but I knew that computer science would be a better place if those not traditionally included could feel welcome and succeed,” Gonzalez said. “All of this led me to become a teacher and lecturer who works hard for access and community building in programs where students learn to love the rigor and challenge of tech but can build a sense of belonging where there wouldn't be otherwise.”

After graduating from UMD with his bachelor’s degree, Gonzalez worked as a high school teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools, where he encouraged students from groups underrepresented in the sciences to pursue careers in computing.

"During my five years teaching high school, I developed an English as a second language course for computer science students to create a path for minority students interested in tech to consider higher education,” Gonzalez recalled. “It's important for our students to have self-confidence and understand they can have a career in tech. This was a turning point for me."

He returned to UMD part-time in 2019 and joined the Break Through Tech team in 2021. He revamped the curriculum for CMSC125: “Introduction to Computing” and created a training course for computer science teaching assistants. He also taught Guild for the first time in 2021 with Break Through Tech, before moving to a full-time position in 2022.

Guild offered nearly 100 UMD students a five-day paid opportunity during the summer to explore tech and learn to code tangible, purpose-driven applications with the help of industry mentors. According to Gonzalez, the program not only provides students with important technical skills but also creates a bridge to real-world experiences—a key component in ensuring career sustainability.

"My students often talk about newfound confidence, a deeper comprehension of the possibilities in tech, and most significantly, a sense of belonging," Gonzalez said. "Almost all outcomes have been positive as our participants can envision themselves in tech. Maybe not all will continue, but at least they see it as an option. These are doors that we're proud to be opening."

In reflecting on the future of the field, Gonzalez encapsulated the broader vision. He believes the future lies in a more inclusive and adaptable approach, catering to a diverse set of students.

“As we look ahead, my hope is that we can better support and retain students from various skill levels and backgrounds,” Gonzalez said. “Currently, we have a strict path into computing through our sequence. I’m optimistic about creating multiple entry points into the program, some of which might be more beginner-friendly. Computer science is a vast field. We can achieve outstanding results without always sticking to traditional teaching methods.”

With passionate advocates like Gonzalez leading the charge, UMD continues to solidify its reputation as a hub for innovation and inclusivity, ensuring that the future of tech is bright—and diverse.

—Story by Samuel Malede Zewdu, CS Communications 

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.