Thriving on teamwork

A picture of May Jacobsen performing gymnastics.

Mary Jacobsen balances gymnastics and a computer science degree. Photo by Bonnie Vick, courtesy of Oregon State Athletics. 

Teamwork comes naturally to Mary Jacobsen, an Oregon State University gymnast and computer science student in the College of Engineering.

She grew up as part of a team, the fifth of seven children. She and her siblings were homeschooled together, and their parents made sure they also had plenty of time to play outside, where they made up games with each other. When Jacobsen had trouble learning to read, her older sister helped out. Later, the support Jacobsen got from her family made it possible for her to be a college-level gymnast.

“To afford gymnastics, my parents and my siblings had to make a lot of sacrifices,” she said.

The senior has come pretty far since she started gymnastics as a 10-year-old at the YMCA in Puyallup, Washington. Initially a walk-on at Oregon State, she has earned seven event titles: three on vault and four on bars. She says that although she competed well on club teams in high school, her experience with the Oregon State team has made a huge difference for her.

“I’ve been able to thrive with the support of a big team,” she said.

She has competed regularly in vault, bars, and floor, and this year will be her last chance to compete on beam. Although she is striving for that goal, she says she will be happy if her teammates are performing better than she is and take the six lineup spots.

“We’re so excited when someone is doing well, because we want the whole team to do well,” she said, explaining that they all push each other by competing for the lineup spots, but still take joy in each other’s successes.

“It’s just a really good feeling to know that your whole team is supporting you,” she said.

Teamwork is what Jacobsen enjoys about computer science too. Compared to gymnastics, the gender breakdown is quite different for the project teams, where she is typically the only woman.  The gender gap in computer science has often been blamed on a “bro culture” that is unwelcoming to women in the field. But so far, that has not been an issue for her.

“My experience at Oregon State has been very good. All the guys are very respectful,” she said.  “I’ve enjoyed all the teams I’ve been on.”

For her senior design project, her two worlds are coming together. Her team is working on writing software to replace aging software that records, organizes, and displays the gymnastics scores in Gill Coliseum.

“It’s fun to be working on something that I know a lot about and that I get to work with my coach on,” Jacobsen said.

Although Jacobsen has made some impressive improvements in gymnastics, her skills in computer science have grown even more during her time at Oregon State. She started out not knowing anything about computer science. In fact, she had barely used a computer in high school. She gives a lot of credit to the teaching assistants who helped her through the introductory classes.

“I probably wouldn’t have made it through that first class without the TAs being so patient with me, and then I ended up really liking the challenge of computer science once I got the hang of it,” she said.

Challenges are what spurs Jacobsen on in both gymnastics and computer science, where, she says, there are always new skills to learn. Her success in both areas was recognized again this year when she was named a Scholastic All-American by the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women for the third year in a row.

Jacobsen knew when she chose computer science as a major that it would be more difficult to earn academic awards, which makes her success even sweeter. But she hasn’t let it go to her head.

“I’m just really thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here,” she said. 

Dec. 11, 2018