With her ice axe in hand, Madeline Zent is breaking new ground for the underrepresented in her field of computer science and on the slopes.
Madeline Zent is an explorer. She boldly goes. The intrepid among us seek to break new ground, cultivate a niche or find a remote corner of the world that few, if any, have visited. Discovery can be an arduous and lonely process, but not for Zent. For her, navigation is a collaborative process, one with multiple compasses and infinite possible directions.
Zent graduates in June with a degree in computer science. Born in South Dakota, Zent moved to Spanaway at the age of five. In high school she attended classes at Tacoma’s School of the Arts (SOTA) and the Science and Math Institute (SAMI). “I rode the bus an hour each way,” she said.
A first-generation student, Zent started her college career at UW in Seattle. “During my freshman year, my mom ended up being diagnosed with a brain tumor,” she said. Zent decided to leave school and return home to help care for her mother. Zent’s mom underwent surgery and months of treatment to first remove the growth then to keep it from returning. She’s now fully recovered and in excellent health.
Zent’s break from school provided insight. For starters, she wanted to be closer to home but she also wanted a place where she could create community. Zent enrolled at Pierce College where she worked on her associate’s degree. “We had a lot of people from Pierce who went to UW Tacoma for computer science,” she said. “They were invited back to talk to different classes and they all told us about how awesome their experience was and that influenced me.”
Zent transferred to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2020. To some extent, scholarships made it possible for her to continue her education. “I received a Next Step scholarship and was also named a Dressel Scholar,” she said. “With this support I was able to cover all of my tuition these past two years but it’s not just the tuition, it’s the mentorship and being able to rely on a network.”
College students don’t have a lot of free time, this is true of Zent. However, the funding she received meant she didn’t have to work while completing her degree. “I’ve tried my best to make sure that the support I received didn’t go to waste by using that free time to help other students,” she said.
Zent founded the Outdoor Adventures club with the goal of providing specific populations — first generation students, members of the BIPOC community — with opportunities to do things like go skiing or snowboarding. To this end Zent received funding to pay for the trips. “I just thought it was important because you don’t see a lot of Latinx or African American people on the mountain,” she said. “These groups are often excluded and made to not feel welcome in these spaces.”
This is Zent’s enterprising spirit at work. Zent did something similar with the Women in Computer Science club. She helped restart the club which had been dormant. Zent is now the group’s president. During the past year she has organized a variety of events for members including portfolio workshops and workshops centered around building technical prowess.
Zent’s commitment to clearing the road less traveled extends beyond the classroom. During the past year she served as UW Tacoma’s STEM Youth Outreach Coordinator. “One of the goals of this position is to get more pre-college students engaged in STEM,” she said. Zent coordinated different activities including helping Tacoma Public School students get connected with NASA’s ROADS on Asteroids competition as well as helping to facilitate UW Tacoma’s Math-Science-Leadership program. She also worked on a computer science DREAM (Designing Rich Experiences Around Majors) Kit for prospective students. “I wanted to find a way to show more middle and high school students what a career in computer science might look like,” she said.
Discovery, at least at times, can seem to come from stepping on others to get to where one wants to go. Zent takes a different approach and plans to carry this ideal into life after graduation. She will spend the summer as a software development intern at T-Mobile headquarters in Bellevue. Ideally, the internship will turn into a permanent position. If not, Zent plans to work in the field of computer science. “I think every time a woman chooses computer science, she is definitely improving the lives of other women,” she said. “How can we really be serving half of the population If only 20% to 26% of those in the field are women?”
It’s hard to know what lit the fire that burns within Zent but there are clues as to its origin. “My mom wanted to get a degree but her dad told her no,” she said. “She [Zent’s mother] has always been 100% for my degree and was always there to support me and offer me encouragement.”
The University of Washington Tacoma Environmental Sciences, Biomedical Sciences, Environmental Sustainability, and Mathematics majors host an Environmental Research Symposium, Sciences and Mathematics Undergraduate Research Symposium (SAMURS).