Sheila Anwari swears she didn't want to be an engineer like her father. Instead, she had made up her mind to be a doctor.
But a computer programming elective during her sophomore year at George Mason University changed that neatly planned path, prompting her to start college all over again. She reentered as a freshman majoring in electrical engineering.
"People were surprised I wanted to be an engineer because there's that stereotype of a quiet, antisocial person," Anwari said. "But my parents told me that I needed to have a marketable major, and this is the area to be in."
Anwari is part of a wave of college students lining up for computer-related programs at Washington area universities this fall, drawn by the promise of wide-open job opportunities and lofty salaries.
The escalating enrollments are creating opportunities -- and some problems -- for students and are forcing universities to scramble to supply enough professors and classrooms.
A survey of major universities in the region shows a 33 percent increase in enrollment in 10 technology programs between the fall of 1996 and last fall. Although final tallies for this fall's enrollments in the programs are not yet available, university officials said the upward trend is continuing. The same is true at area community colleges.
At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, registration for this fall's core computer engineering courses filled up in two hours. Professors are turning students away because there simply isn't enough room; in some classes, some students already have to sit on the floor.
The number of students signed up in Virginia Tech's four technology programs has jumped 24 percent since last fall.
Last year, the University of Maryland at College Park had a 27 percent jump in the number of applicants interested in computer science and a 17 percent increase in engineering applicants. Admissions officers who travel around the country say they are getting more questions from high school students about computer science and computer engineering programs.
The university had to cap the number of students in computer engineering this fall because the department couldn't afford to hire more faculty members.
At George Mason University in Fairfax County, there has been a sharp increase in enrollments in computer science and electrical engineering over the past two years. School officials expect that to continue this fall, although students' choices of majors have not yet been fully tallied.
A year ago, George Mason launched a computer engineering program that attracted 10 freshmen and four upperclassmen. The preliminary enrollment in the program this fall is 67, and officials expect that to rise.
Even non-techies who once avoided dizzying computer language and mathematics classes are crowding into introductory computer science courses, hoping to get enough background to make themselves marketable.
With all the buzz about the Internet and the tech worker shortage, the popularity of computer and networking courses isn't a surprise.
High schoolers know that there's a need for workers with technical skills and that they can make a lot of money in technical fields. "It's a no-brainer," said Kenneth Hintz, a computer engineering professor at George Mason.
There also is evidence that the geek stigma long attached to students interested in computers is fading fast as the Internet culture becomes mainstream.
In a survey last year, the Institute for Youth Development found that computers were among the top five hobbies and interests for teenagers ages 13 to 17 and that teenagers ranked software development as one of their top three career choices.
The good news for the Washington area's technology companies is that enrollments in 10 technical programs at George Mason, the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia totaled more than 6,100 last year, about 1,500 more than in 1996.
The bad news: Even this sharp increase would fill less than a third of the region's more than 20,000 technology vacancies if all the graduates went to work in this area.
Although universities are welcoming the new interest in technology, they also are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with what students want. The constantly changing nature of technology is posing a challenge for schools and for professors.
In the past five years, almost all state-funded four-year universities in Virginia and Maryland have added a new degree program in computer engineering -- the latest hot degree in the technology industry.
At College Park, the number of computer engineering majors has soared since the major was introduced in the fall of 1997. The first year, 58 students enrolled in the program; this fall, about 190 students have declared as computer engineering majors.
Three years ago, Virginia Tech lifted a cap on the number of computer engineering students to accommodate increasing demand. Before that, the number of students majoring in computer engineering was limited to 70. Last spring the school graduated 200 computer engineers.
Universities also are struggling to reshuffle their already limited budgets to give more prominence to their computer engineering programs.
The University of Virginia's engineering school, for example, hired five additional professors for its computer science department. At times, such changes mean the school must drop faculty positions in other engineering programs.
Some universities are trying to meet the demand for computer engineering classes by reaching to the bottom of their funds and by increasing the course load for faculty members.
The Maryland and Virginia governments in recent years have taken steps to deal with the shortage of technology workers.
In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) last year introduced a scholarship program designed to encourage students to stay in the Maryland technology work force after graduation. To receive a $3,000 annual scholarship, students must promise to stay in Maryland for the number of years that they received the scholarship.
This year, Maryland granted the scholarship to more than 700 college-bound students. State officials expect that number to increase next year as more high schoolers learn about the program.
Virginia doesn't have a similar scholarship program, but Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) last week announced a tax-break initiative for Virginia businesses that hire high school and college students as interns.
State funding increases, however, aren't keeping pace with the demand for professors, classrooms and labs, educators say.
The popularity of technology courses is presenting dilemmas for students, too, educators say.
The prospect of dazzling starting salaries -- sometimes more than $50,000 a year -- for top technology graduates is prompting some students to race through their studies and graduate as quickly as possible.
Patrick Quinn, who is entering George Mason this fall and plans to major in computer science, said he wants to spend as little time as possible on his college education.
At his high school in West Springfield, every student has an e-mail account. Students can take college-level computer programming courses, and Quinn took every one.
Now he is eager to graduate in two years so he can put his computer knowledge to a real-world test.
"There's only so much they can teach you here," said Quinn, 18. "The sooner I can get out in the world and start experiencing things the better."
University administrators say many technology students are like Quinn -- they want to begin their careers as soon as possible. But many of them are taking a different route than Quinn's by accepting offers from companies to work full-time while they take a few courses each semester to get their degrees. For these students, it can take six years to complete a four-year curriculum.
Students who choose this arrangement say one advantage is that they are spared the stress that most college seniors experience when they are looking for jobs. Plus, many of the companies that hire these students pay their way through college.
At George Mason, Anwari, now a junior, is readying her resume to seek an internship at an area technology company. She hopes that will lead to a full-time position after graduation.
Some professors are critical of college graduates' rush into the job market, saying it is drying up graduate school enrollment in technology fields.
College graduates who have even a little computer background can get five or six job offers, so it's hard to sell them on going for a graduate degree, student advisers say.
"Now that the job market is so fantastic, it's not as enticing and appealing to go to graduate school as it once was," said Bernard W. Taylor, head of the department of management of science and information technology at Virginia Tech. "We can't compete with industry."
Daniel Menasce, a professor of computer science at George Mason, hopes that the trend toward entering the job market rather than graduate school will eventually reverse itself.
"It's a cycle, much like the economy and the job market," Menasce said. His advice to students? "Don't be greedy. We need to know that we can't let talent go to waste."
Some students, such as University of Maryland senior Aamer Jaleel, aren't biting at the lure of quick cash. Jaleel, a computer engineering major, says that a master's degree will open more career opportunities for him down the road, and that if he's going to get his master's, he needs to do it now.
"If I stop going to school, I might just stop for good," Jaleel said.
Some professors say the obsession with cashing in on a degree can backfire on students.
Students who dwell on the money they will make after graduation tend to be less focused on building a foundation of knowledge, says Menasce.
The promise of money can even blind some students to the fact that computers aren't their strong suit, says George Mason computer engineering professor Hintz, who has been teaching at the school for 12 years.
He has urged some of his students to pursue a business or law degree after graduation rather than go straight into a career.
"But it's a market-driven economy. They want to get jobs and earn real money," Hintz said. "Not that many will take this advice."
For her part, Anwari remains determined to get a job right after graduation. But she spends a couple of hours a week helping underclassmen figure out the best academic and career paths for them.
"I want to be a role model," Anwari said. "No one ever told me in high school about the possibilities."
No Longer Nerdy
Waves of college students, aiming for high salaries when they graduate, are signing up for technology classes:
Number of declared computer science majors, 1996 through 2000 school years
George Mason U.
University of Va.
University of Md.
* Preliminary estimates; final number will be available later in the semester.
SOURCE: University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, University of Maryland