A Perspective: What a Canceled Commencement Ceremony means to a First Gen College Student

23 Mar

I knew that life was going to fundamentally change when reports of COVID-19 projected a global pandemic but like many Americans, I tried to shut my eyes to it as I continued with life. In the eve of Winter quarter finals, my life was consumed by long hours of work at Huang basement, raw emotions, and constant sleep deprivation. I was carrying 19 units with four computer science classes and to keep from breaking down I willed myself to take it one day at a time whispering to myself that I was almost there.

What kept me going was knowing that Spring quarter was almost here. Spring quarter embodies hope, a calm over the campus, photoshoots of senior fountain hopping, and bodies browning under the gorgeous California sun as they study in the lawn in front of Green library. And this Spring quarter would also mean accomplishing a goal long deferred.

My life has taken many turns; three and a half years ago it took a turn up as 14 years after graduating from high school I had the privilege of going back to school full time as an undergrad studying CS at Stanford University. With thick skin and mental strength acquired by experience I was better equipped than my Latinx / First gen peers but in many ways, being a non-traditional transfer student (and a mom to three girls), I was even more of an outsider, even more of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

Walking across that stage and getting that degree would mean it was all worth it. So when Stanford confirmed all of our fears and officially canceled our commencement ceremony, it didn’t just hurt us, it didn’t just dash our dream –  it dashed the dreams of our parents, our siblings, and for some of us that of our children.

I know that I will still get my diploma and that I will be okay. But it still feels like we have been robbed of a moment – our moment, to give our parents the greatest source of pride seeing their first generation American, brown, children thriving in a four year institution and being celebrated along with white American children as equals.

Because just as this was all worth it to us in order to get that degree, for our parents: the sacrifice of immigrating to this country with nothing but the sweat and labor of their hands; the fear of living in this country and contributing to its economy while undocumented; the desaprecios from their employers; the humiliation of having to continually rely on their children to explain it in Spanish; the unceasing ache in their bent necks as they walked through life with eyes downcast – it was all going to be worth it the moment they heard their child’s name called out and saw them walk across that stage, diploma in hand. Heads held high, broad smiles with aching cheeks, tears brimming, and dressed in their Sunday best – our parents would feel the pulse of their rich cultural history and ancestry emerge. They would sheath their too-long practiced peasant shyness and would look up and exclaim to all that could hear, “That is my Susy! That is my daughter.”

And when with heavy hearts we called our parents to tell them the news, they quickly without missing a beat, responded, “Mija, we are so proud of you. The graduation doesn’t matter. What matters is, que tú luchaste mija, tú lo hiciste!” And we smiled through the phone swallowing the lump in our throat knowing how much it very much did matter.

So when we say that missing out on a graduation ceremony is bigger than us, this is what we mean: We lost the opportunity to elevate our parents the way they have carried us on their shoulders our whole lives.

And while in the big picture this remains just another consequence of a terrifying global pandemic, to those of us who grew up in a small, restricted, and confined existence, this was our biggest picture.

 

Let’s Talk Tech Interview Anxiety

31 Jan

Your resume is beautiful, readable, and within the limit. You have polished that resume until it shines so bright it blinds you with your dazzling achievements.

Rosie Perez strutting into a room

You’ve been to countless career fairs where you’ve continually broken through your introverted + imposter syndrome tendencies to talk to the engineers + recruiters and convince them that they need your resume.

gif: pick me

And then it happens. You get a call / email inviting you to add your calendar availability to schedule your first interview. And you want to book the furthest away possibility because – you’ll totally have more time to study. But really you just want to avoid it.

gif: man hiding in car

It’s like you forgot that this is what you wanted.

So What Happened? And How Can You get through it?

First off it’s perfectly normal to be nervous. If it didn’t mean anything, then you wouldn’t care. My therapist put it beautifully when they said, “A balance of preparation and a little nervousness is healthy. You don’t want to not be nervous at all because then you won’t prepare. But you also don’t want to worry too much because then it’s too overwhelming to prepare.” [paraphrased by me]

When I first heard this I was like Wait What? I hadn’t considered that ‘worry’ could be a good thing. That ‘worry’ was an emotion that when moderate could motivate good behavior.

Or that ‘worry’ while being a strong emotion is an emotion that runs its course if given time.

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But when we avoid it, that ‘worry’ grows because we never face it long enough for it to run that course. So we learn to only avoid. And our fear of the unknown grows. And we get locked in a series of crashing and overwhelming emotions – so overwhelming that we can’t even think about it.

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We close our own door. We don’t try. Because if we don’t try, we can’t get rejected right? Wrong, we are being rejected by default. We are in essence, rejecting ourselves. And this is a vicious cycle that invites harsh, unhealthy, and unhelpful self-critique. Doesn’t that sound exhausting???

So What Can We do?

I’ll give you a recent example. Because of many reasons I get incredibly anxious as an interview nears. I try to cancel, postpone, convince myself that I don’t want this or need this, that this is a terrible idea because why would I work for x company?! I come up with incredibly convincing stories that all say the same thing: Don’t try, it’s not worth it.

But what I’m really telling myself is: I’m not worth it.

And I recognize that voice. That’s an old voice. A voice that has harmed me for years and whose power grows when I listen to it, when I affirm it.

But let’s take a step back. Put yourself in the shoes of the listener and the speaker is your daughter, sister, best friend, someone you love. They share their struggles with imposter syndrome, with that voice that says that they won’t succeed. What do you say to them?

You are worthy. You will succeed.

Then you problem solve with them.

  • What is the worse that can happen?
  • How likely is that to happen?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What do you struggle with?
  • Is that an immutable situation or can you do something about it?
  • What can you do?

Here’s a walk through of my answers to the above:

  • That I will go blank, prove that I am stupid and that I know nothing.
  • Not very likely, I will at the very least be able to solve some of the problems and be able to answer most questions.
  • To confirm I will fail.
  • I feel ‘cold’ every time I interview.
  • No, it’s not immutable. Yes, there is something I can do about it. *Side note: This will be your answer 99% of the time.* 
  • I can set aside a few minutes each day to attempt interview questions. I can carve out an hour on the weekend and create a roadmap of what I want to master.

Reframe the Situation

And most importantly, I can bet on myself and move forward with the interview. That sounds easy but it’s the hardest part right? Some tactics I find helpful is to reframe the situation.

For example, I can:

  • this interview is for practice, doesn’t matter if I get the offer or not, knowing the questions they ask in this type of interview is what matters (this doesn’t mean don’t prep – this means accept many interviews so that you can get that real time practice in)
  • this is a data point. I can assess what went well, what I struggled with / stumbled on and this will inform my study roadmap
  • this is for my community. I will document the process and blog about it to remove the stigma around performance anxiety. This is one of my favorites. 😉

Can you think of other ways to reframe this?

In Summary

La pura verdad, this sh!t is hard.

I have to walk myself through this every time. The thing is that once the interview is over I’m always like – huh okay. That wasn’t AS BAD as my imagination made it out to be.

So now we both have a road map – because you bet I’m going to come back to this time and time again. I hope that this helps you make the space to ask and answer these questions and to believe in yourself enough to put in that prep work and go for it.

Because chingados, we’re worth it!

Jennifer Lopez looking confident in a gown

Finding Community @Tech Intersections

28 Jan

Finding spaces where you feel welcome and understood can be hard for many of us. We come from a diverse set of experiences and at times that can make it really hard to relate to others which can lead to the feeling of being an outsider.

I spent the first two years at Stanford feeling like an alien, anxious of taking up space, and feeling emotionally raw each time someone asked me if I was a TA or grad student or what my story was.

It’s almost impossible to succinctly express who you are – all of you

I’m an undergrad senior at Stanford studying computer science in the AI track. I’m also a mom to three girls ages 3, 14, and 15. I grew up a couple blocks away from MacArthur Park and in Boyle Heights. One of my siblings is trapped in gang life. I’m first-gen and my parents still live in poverty. I tried to go to college when I graduated from high school but my three jobs only just covered my expected parent contribution without any money in my pocket and much less the ability to keep helping my family financially as I had been doing since I started legally working at 15.  I dropped out. I got married at 18. It was an abusive marriage. I was a single mom who spent her 20s doing anything to survive and give my girls a better future. I jumped into another abusive relationship. My girls and I lived in 5+ places in the span of two years, including my car before it got impounded. So you can say that while I have the privilege of walking around Stanford’s beautiful campus, I am also very tethered to my past circumstances and the present circumstances of my immediate family.

Finding Spaces Where I can lose the tension in my jaw, in between my shoulders…

Finding spaces where I don’t feel like I am an inconvenience or held at arms length is hard. Finding spaces where I can relax and feel welcome is almost impossible.

So when I find them – it’s like fireworks in my heart and an emotional salve that heals me deeply. Enter Tech Intersections.

Yesterday I got to spend my Saturday at Mills College in Oakland. The day opened in their gorgeous auditorium.

Image of Mills College's auditorium.

Where the incredible Jasmine Fuego gave us some much needed morning healing.

Irma Olguin’s Keynote had me Crying and Laughing

irma

I want all the Talks!

There were excellent talks on getting a job as a remote engineer (taking notes for when I have the privilege of hiring remote engineers), on scaling and growth, on the importance of customer service works in tech, and so many more. I wish I had Hermione’s time-turner so I could attend all three tracks at the same time.

 I had the opportunity to speak

As I was driving to Oakland on Saturday morning I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. What if no one showed up? Who was I kidding – who wanted to hear me speak?! I told that voice to shut up and I told myself – even if I only have one person show up, that person and I will become the best of friends and I hope that they learn some of my strategies.

I shared my nontraditional path to tech and my journey on belonging.

image of slide deck cover

 

For anyone interested, you can find my slides here: Susana_TechIntersections_PDT.

I will upload a video of my presentation (not at the conference as I sadly failed to record that). I have a recording from when I was practicing but my babe is snoring in the background. 🤣

Sharing Allowed me to reflect on everything I have accomplished

In my talk I shared my story, the importance of normalizing failure, contextualizing failure, and building a sense of community to succeed. In preparing my talk I was able to document my wins as well as reflect on how my ‘failures’ used to overwhelm me. I am able to hold those ‘failures’ and take the learning that resulted but leave behind any shame or embarrassment that was associated with it.

Failure is common – we all fail constantly – we just don’t talk about it

It also allowed me to see how my topic was relevant to many. The room was full and there was an equal split amongst my Black and Latinx hermanas. I saw nodding and the emotional reaction to the circumstances that I know are prevalent amongst both of our communities.

Biggest Takeaway: Welcoming Communities are Healing

But the biggest takeaway for me was how healing it was to be in this community. To be surrounded by Black and Latinx womxn in tech who represented a diverse set of professional / education backgrounds and who came together to celebrate and uplift each other was powerful and an experience I will hold in my heart for those tough times – until that experience is livened at next year’s Tech Intersections. I hope to see you there! *I wish I took more pictures!*

 

The Importance of Normalizing “Failure” and Looking Back – The Path to Stanford

17 Jan

Okay, get comfortable because I can tell this is going to be a long post.

Three years ago…

I was a first year at Stanford. I transferred in after attending many community colleges (a class here, a class there, or many failed attempts of trying to go back to school).

The years leading up to Stanford:

As an 18 yo HS grad -> attended Loyola Marymount University but for many reasons I had to drop out first semester.

To give you a sense of how many times I attempted to go back to school (and to see the shift in my circumstances from downward to upward), I attended:

LA all day – more like all the hell over LA…

  • Santa Monica College (at night):

I lived in Boyle Heights, worked full time for the City of LA as a clerk in downtown Los Angeles, and commuted via bus (think long ass commute) or getting a ride from my sometimes willing boyfriend at the time.

  • East Los Angeles Community College:

I was 20 + pregnant, nuff said.

  • Pasadena City College:

I was living in downtown LA, my girls were 3, and this was a few months after my separation with their bio donor. I was a wreck. Didn’t go well.

The Upturn – I made a ‘reasonable’ GOAL with Purpose
  • Los Angeles Community College

This was my first successful attempt at going back to school.  My girls were 6 & was 7. I was living in Chinatown (my first time living in an apt on my own (well with my babies) but no one else to depend on for the rent. I worked full time as a business development coordinator at a law firm in downtown LA. And I had my own car! I was still paycheck to paycheck BUT hey we weren’t homeless and we weren’t living with an abusive person so Life Was Good.

I leaned on my sister, mom, and many friends to help me with picking up my girls from their after school program one day a week so I could go to class 6 – 10pm. Don’t get it twisted, this was super stressful week to week. Peeps would commit to do it and then fail to show up.

The GOAL: I made an agreement with myself, you ever do that? Talk to yourself and be like “Okay Susana, we are not going to worry about that, let’s remember our goal. Remember the Goal: Take a class that you enjoy and see if you can complete it successfully.” It’s super helpful and centering.

I loved the comparative politics class. I purposefully chose a poliSci class bc I love me some history + politics. And I finished it with an A. When I saw my exam, paper, and final score I was so floored. I howled with happiness in my car. Hey! Celebrate + Congratulate yourself! 🎉

Left my Beautiful LA for the Bay Area 😢 😔 😞 😭  

  • Cañada College (Redwood City in the peninsula) Attempt 1!

I had recently moved to the bay area on a big fucking gamble and trust in myself that I was going to make it happen. I still impress myself for having the balls and self-belief to have done that move. I was hired by a top 3 global law firm as a TEMP coordinator to cover the coordinators in the Silicon Valley office during maternity. Yeah girl, as a temp. 

When one of the head honchos – I swear everyone and their mother interviewed me here – asked me, “Are you comfortable accepting a temporary position?” I answered, “I am confident that my work will speak for itself and either you will offer me a permanent position or I will have no problem securing offers from other firms.” BOOM lady. Heck yeah I was sh!tt!ng bricks with that job being temp and having 0 benefits – single mom ‘member! – but I took a gamble on myself.

That’s the thing right, when you’re fighting so hard to succeed, all you can think about is – just let me concentrate on getting this done and I will worry about that when I have to. It will work out. What other choice do you have?

They hired me on the spot and I enrolled my girls at an excellent school nearby. Everything good so far. I was still on a high from that A from LACC so I enrolled at the local community college in Redwood City into their College for Working Adults (CWA)program.

Side note: I didn’t know community colleges could be this beautiful!

Their CWA program is for working adults, all classes are offered in the evenings and weekends and you are guaranteed a spot – no waiting bc a class was full. The offer several Associate Degrees – no technical ones but I will get to that in a minute.

I started enrolled in classes, started working and then the first day of classes as I was getting ready to leave a partner in the firm caught me on my way out and asked for a pitch for a new biotech client opportunity. 😧

I couldn’t reach anyone in the BD team – I was an hourly temp, not salary – and he was insistent in a way I couldn’t say no (blocked the door as he started telling me what he needed) so I called the school and let them know I wouldn’t be able to attend. Since the first attendance was mandatory, I missed that semester.

Staying on Path: Look, there will always be circumstances that try to stop you from reaching your goal. Work (that you’re trying to leave) will get in the way. Parenting. Taking care of ailing family. A bill you didn’t plan for nor have the funds for. [insert the many ways shit 💩  can hit the fan]

But the 🔑 key is that you can’t let a stumble get you down. I took stock of my circumstances and realized I was putting a lot on my plate. I altered my immediate goal to: Be a BadAss Mother Effer at work -> get hired permanently = benefits for kids and me. So I took the energy that would have gone into the missed semester and threw so much fierceness their way that I had several partners lobbying the dept to hire me ASAP. So I got hired as a permanent coordinator and ended up taking over two positions (that shit always happens to me).

The next Semester(s)

Once I had established my reputation at work, I enrolled again and started going to class Thursday evenings form 5 – 10 PM, Saturdays 9 – 3 PM, and online. I kept this up until I managed to get all the requirements to transfer to a Cal State or UC. My dream in the sky would be to go to Berkeley. My dream, dream was to go to Stanford. I didn’t share that dream with people because sometimes people – friends, colleagues, family – can be downright negative. 👎 They think they’re doing you a favor by giving you a ‘reality check’ without any knowledge to the willpower and determination you have inside.

Shining At Work + School + Parenting + Volunteering + New Relationship

I didn’t let up on going full force at work. I stayed late all the time only to go home and work again once my girls went to bed. I regularly pulled 60-70 hour workweeks. I didn’t say no to any ‘opportunity’ (i.e. more responsibility for the same pay) and made my case to get promoted.

In less than a year and a half I went from Temp -> Coordinator -> Business Development Lead for the Technology Transactions Group and the Life Sciences Industry Group. It’s a mouthful. I worked with partners in SV, SF, NY, DC, LA, London, Dubai, and Singapore. It was exhausting but also effin exhilarating. I felt like I had a career – not just a job – and now I was salary. And it was a damn good salary period, an incredible salary for someone with only a HS degree.

Staying on Track When You Smell Other Pretty Roses

I could have become complacent with the money and the career I had carved out. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But weighing on me was my desire to get my degree.

I didn’t want to continually keep proving myself to new people when they asked where I went to school. My colleagues all graduated from top schools – many from Ivy Leagues and/or had MBAs, law degrees and/or came from affluent families. They had their network, their whiteness, and their social currency to open doors wherever they went. I grew up by McArthur Park and Boyle Heights, went to under-resourced, overcrowded, and failing inner city public schools. My parents are immigrants and didn’t go beyond elementary school. They speak broken English and broken Spanish. The only inheritance they will leave me is the generational trauma and the back tax I have been paying my whole life to help them and the lump sum back tax that I will have to pay when they pass away.

I wanted to get a degree because I was too acquainted with the oppression of poverty and I was sick of people coming up with ways to say No. 

So while I kicked ass at work, I only gave it 80% (because let’s be real Our 80% is other people’s 100%). I made relationships with my counselor, the program director, my professors. I made sure everyone knew knew me so that they would want to vouch for me.

So when it came to applying time…

I almost didn’t turn in my Stanford Application 😦 

I know, right. I worked on the main essay and getting my letters of recommendation (do it way ahead of time). I thought I was giving one of the recommenders ample time but she threw a fit and complained about how I wasn’t giving her enough time. 😑 You don’t know what people have going on so try to do this months before the deadline. I write out what I wanted them to focus on to make it easier for them.

My other recommender was the senior partner at the firm I worked at. I am very proud that I earned his respect and that he respected me so much as to write a letter of recommendation (he was hoping I would go to Cal over Stanford but still wrote it!) even though it could mean me leaving.

Day of Deadline 11:30 PM

I’m not going to tell you some of the stuff that I left for the last minute bc Don’t Procrastinate! But I was filled with so much self-doubt that I started to convince myself that it was an excellent idea NOT to Apply. It cost $90 and who can toss $90? Wouldn’t it be better NOT to apply and thus not confirm that they didn’t want me?

Straight up, the only reason I hit submit was that I didn’t want to face those who wrote my letters and my fiancee at the time when I had to fess up that I didn’t apply.

So at 11:(too close to midnight I submitted) – seriously don’t do that. 

I found out I got into UC Berkeley the day after I gave birth. I was in the maternity ward hitting refresh while breastfeeding my newborn. You can read about that here. Fast forward to when I had my daughter (she was 2 weeks old) and I found out I fucking got in with an acceptance rate < 2%. You can read about that moment here.

And then she lived happily ever after 😂 🤣 😆 

No girl, with every up there’s a down. And oh have there been so many downs. But this post is long enough and I want to leave you with:

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and …. (I’ve now responded to 100+ messages)

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While I can no longer have detailed 1:1 talks, please read this excellent post with advice on the transfer process. If you have QUESTIONS, please comment on that post and I promise to do my best to answer them.

Follow Me on Twitter @susanabenavidez and subscribe to my blog! I post really long posts but I promise that they are top shelf quality 😉

Moral of the story:

Never Close Your Own Door – Apply!!

Transferring to Stanford Q&A – A student’s perspective

12 Jan

Hi! If you’re here because of this tweet, welcome!

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Feel free to read more about me in the About page but a brief intro:

I’m a senior at Stanford University majoring in CS in the AI track. I’m also a transfer student (transferred from a Cañada Community College). I’m Latinx, first-gen, and nontraditional (over 25) and a mom to three girls.

To start off PLEASE APPLY. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Every single one of us thought we wouldn’t get in because our year the acceptance rate was <2%. Pero aqui estoy!

To share information as much as possible I will list Q&A from DM’s resulting from the tweet above. While I wish everyone well, I am concentrating my efforts in increasing the number of Latinx, Black, Native American, first-gen / low income community college transfers. I respectfully ask that you not DM me on the process for grad school or frosh app (no idea). Follow me @susanabenavidez and DM me your questions.

Let’s begin! I will share the questions I’ve received and answers I provide. Please note that my answers do not in any way represent Stanford nor are legal advice nor are to be taken as official instructions of any kind. Names are removed and questions are edited for clarity.

Q. How do I event start the application process?

A. Here’s a checklist from Stanford detailing exactly what you need to submit for your application.

Q. Can I afford it?

A. I can’t answer this question for you but I can share that Stanford has been incredibly generous with me and many of the transfer students that I know. I got into UC Berkeley – you can read about that here and the financial package I got meant I had to pay several thousands of dollars even though I qualified for financial aid with a low family contribution. When I got into Stanford – you can read about that moment here I didn’t respond. It wasn’t until the transfer director contacted me to see what was going on. I told her I was waiting on financial aid because I couldn’t commit without knowing what I would owe. She checked and I got my FA letter almost immediately.

I almost screamed when I saw the generous $$$ scholarship they awarded me. It was like they made it so I couldn’t say no. My youngest was 4 months old when I started and they even provided me with a daycare stipend. It obviously doesn’t cover all of my expenses as I have a big family but it covers enough to give me peace of mind.

See here for official information from Stanford about cost / aid estimates.

Q. Do they accept transfer students out of California?

A. Yes! My transfer class had students from all over the US and an international student from Singapore.

Q. Hi Susana – I’m considering CS at Stanford!. I’m already a self-taught developer but I want to go back to school. My biggest obstacle is that I’m undocumented and low income. I’m not sure where I can find resource for my specific case. Any tips, would be much appreciated. 🙂

A. I emailed financial aid and will report back what they say (didn’t give any identifying information)

“Hi Susana, Stanford treats undocumented students as US domestic students in the undergraduate admission process, assessing their applications under the same need-blind admission policy it uses for citizens of the United States. Stanford will use institutional funds to meet the full demonstrated financial need of undocumented students who are admitted. Please share our Undocumented Student webpage with your friend and let him know that he is welcome to call our office if he has any concerns.

Our number is 650-723-3058.

Financial Aid Officer Montag Hall, 355 Galvez Street Stanford, CA 94305-6106 | T 650.723.3058”

Here is the link to the Undocumented Student webpage: financialaid.stanford.edu/undergrad/how/

Q. I received several questions that asked for general advice. I mean many of us are first-gen students and didn’t receive the guidance on how to apply to schools or that Stanford even takes transfers.

“I’m a second year (first born and gen) student at —- college and I wasn’t planning on transferring anywhere until 2021 as a —— student. I honestly never considered Stanford until I came across your tweet! I need all the orientation I could get so I was wondering if you had some pointers that I could work on for during this next year! Thank you sm.”

A. What I did:

JOURNAL Your Accomplishments:

I kept notes of everything I was involved in and did outside of academic school work:
  • Approach professors to take their honors course – some offer a contract you sign and you just have to do extra work and a research paper – apply to symposiums at Berkeley and Stanford to present your research – your counselor should have this info
  • I was a single mom so I added everything I do as a parent on top of working full time and going to school
  • I volunteered at startup orgs showing that my interest in entrepreneurship was tangible
  • I started a social media group for parents that grew into a building a new school effort, served as advertising for the Chamber of Commerce to attract families, and resulted in networking that got me my first business development job
  • I worked up the ladder in business development and highlighted my leadership position at a prestigious firm
  • I had community organizing experience, freelance writing, and showed how much I grew and survived while thriving. It’s hard to remember everything if you don’t take notes in a journal.

Your accomplishments don’t have to look like mine. The transfer class for my year was incredibly diverse and ran the gamut of life experiences. That’s the point. Stanford wants to attract a diverse community of students.

Q. How did you structure your personal statement?

A. My personal statement told a story that went something like this:

  • who I was + where I started
  • the trauma / struggles that defined my early ‘failure’
  • how I took that failure and let it motivate my next moves
  • my commitment to higher education + equality of education (my focus is edtech / CS + Social Good)
  • highlighted the turn from where I was to what I did to accomplish -> highlighted the biggest and most impressive accomplishments
  • how I would leverage my time at Stanford to reach my goals (for me, a startup in edtech / social good space)

That’s sort of the short story of how I approached my personal statement. I would share it except that my essay was deeply personable, emotionally raw, and describes trauma / abuse that I don’t want to share here quite yet.

But the higher level approach I took was – what do I have that others don’t? Why am I impressive? I took the little that life gave me as a start and turned it into mother effin magic.

Let me illustrate my point via a couple of pictures:

candAvB

ladders

Highlight the Upward Trend of your Life that demonstrates sustained growth.

How do you respond to ‘failure’? I’ve had many challenges in my life. ‘Failure’ is hard, really hard. Most people give up, settle, crumble under failure. Others take that failure, learn from it, pivot and take off to their potential. Be the latter. 

failure

In other words, I wasn’t the ‘perfect’ candidate given the early ‘failures’ in my life. But I definitely demonstrated resilience and the ability to not run away from my problems or the shame that comes with them. I owned what happened to me as well as the decisions I made. I spoke about the motivations in my life for a better life and Not Giving Up (for me my little girls). And I showed what a badass I am by letting them see the growth from where I started and what I accomplished with the little I had.

Q. Did you do any research as a community college student?

Q. What is campus life like?

A. I feel like you have to ask someone else on what it’s like as a 20 yo but from my very unique experience:

The first year was tough. It can feel incredibly isolating when you are a nontraditional student and don’t feel like you belong. I joined and took on leadership positions at Women in CS and Society of Latinx Engineers. This helped somewhat. I also took several creative writing courses and that was a great way to meet friends as the classes are tiny (~8 students v. the hundreds in my CS classes).

Eventually I worked through the belief and voice that told me I didn’t belong and worked on carving out spaces for me on campus.

Last year and this year have been incredible socially. I feel like I have friends wherever I go and I very much feel like Stanford is home.

I have done so much while on campus, the opportunities are incredible:

  • Did the Levinthal Tutorial, a 1:1 class with a Stegner Fellow and read one of my short stories to a large audience. I’ve never shared outside of small workshopping.
  • Was a Seeds of Change cohort leader where I went through Stanford’s Women’s Executive Leadership program and taught similar concepts to high school girls interested in STEM
  • Member of CS + Social Good where I took the incredible CS51/52 two quarter course where we ideated, prototyped, and then built a product as a solution posed by an edTech partner
  • Summer CS + Social Good Fellow where I interned at a tiny but powerful edTech startup. I grew so much as an engineer – I had to – I was the 2nd engineer on staff!
  • WiCS and SOLE: Met so many companies that I recruited to come speak to our members, including some very cool CEOs that I really admire
  • Moderated an event with Ellen Pao A Conversation with Ellen K. Pao, tech investor and advocate, the former CEO of reddit, and a cofounder of the award-winning diversity and inclusion nonprofit Project Include
  • Took the novel writing class and have a draft (very rough) of my first novel!
  • Presented my research at the Latinx in AI workshop at NeurIPS last month in Vancouver
  • Forged incredible relationships with CS professors that I deeply admire
  • Met my co-founder!
  • Interned at Y Combinator and Thunkable, a YC Company
  • El Centro for Friday Cafecito (Mexican sweet bread + hot chocolate / sometimes atole or champurrado YUM!)

I know I’m forgetting a lot. But you get the point, if you leverage the resources there is so much to do!

 

Write/Speak/Code a Latinx In Tech Awakening

13 Oct

I’ve been floundering for the last x years.

When I was growing up I kinda knew I was smart. But no one ever said this explicitly. I stole bits and pieces of this information from quick glances at transcripts that said Highly Gifted, at the comments that some teachers made about my “potential”. But no one explicitly said, “Susana, we will help you reach your potential.” Or we will explain what we mean by “potential”.

Instead I heard all of the disappointments that my drop in grades in HS brought, or the silent treatment I got from my counselor following my suicide attempt my junior year. I was left to look for the scraps and pieces of hope that I would be able to amount to something academically – a feeling too similar that I received at home where I hoped to amount to anything more than what I felt I had been born to be for the molesters in my life.

It has been a long and painful road to get to where I am.

Really painful.

I share this because I am trying to give you a glimpse as to why I have had such a hard time building a sense of belonging. And sadly, when you don’t feel like you belong, it’s like having one foot out the door ready to take your leave because you never truly believed that you deserved a place in the room to begin with.

I have struggled so much to belong at Stanford and by extension, in tech (because the two are as intertwined as are fertile soil and water). I thought that I wasn’t smart enough. That I just wasn’t the right profile. That I was too late. That I wasn’t good enough. That it was me, and my skin color and my culture and my upbringing that didn’t afford me the privilege of blending. Of belonging.

But it wasn’t until this summer that I truly felt like I couldn’t fold myself onto the definition of a Stanford CS student that I felt myself bursting wondering what the hell was wrong with me.

I had a stressful summer. But at the end I had an awakening. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t that I wasn’t going to be able to belong, it was that I didn’t belong into the current mold. Because there was no mold for someone like me.

And I had to get comfortable with that paradigm shift.

Enter Write/Speak/Code.

I attended a Techqueria event at Slack. What is Techqueria? I had the same question and funny enough I didn’t find out by a Latinx member but by a fellow intern who happened to know someone on the board who went to school with her brother. The event had a panel of Latinx in tech, one of which was the amazing Josh Torres, the Latinx Tech Program Manager at the Kapor Center, and more importantly to me, the son to a single mom who went on to carve out a very successful path for herself *Josh I still want to be friends with your bad ass mom*. I reached out to Josh because his mother’s story touched me deeply, and to ask to be connected to Latinx opportunities afforded by the Kapor Center. They funded my registration to Write/Speak/Code and empowered me to attend.

I had never attended a technical conference. I had never attended an affinity conference that truly made me feel like I belonged.

Write/Speak/Code does not mess around. It is a 3 day intensive workshop that offers a curriculum for you to become a better technical writer, presenter, and contributor to open source. It also offers community and fosters a sense of belonging.

Throughout the weekend I connected with other women who had powerful stories, who uplifted me, who inspired me to remember my own story and remind myself why I was here.

Through the code of conduct that I felt was concrete and impactful, tutorials by Angie Jones, lunch with Tiffany Price *also a badass at the Kapor Center* <<clearly they know how to hire top talent>>, meeting amazing friends and sources of inspiration like Genesis and Shailvi, I truly felt like I belonged. Not only did I belong but I had so much to bring to the tech space that they didn’t even know they craved.

Following that magical weekend I was inspired to speak up. To objectively inspect what I had to offer and what my value is as a Latinx in tech, as a Latinx transfer student at Stanford, as a Latinx in AI, as the bad ass indigena mujer that I am, as the all of me unheard perspective had to offer. I have applied to various conferences and opportunities because Write/Speak/Code reminded me that the worse that can happen is that I hear no. Or nothing back at all. And that is okay.

Since then because I have put myself out there I had the honor to moderate an incredible conversation with the amazing Ellen K. Pao, I have had my Natural Language Processing paper in hate speech detection accepted at Latinx In AI workshop co-located at Neurips, and I have had my inspiration and hope for what I can do refueled by womxn that lift me up.

I can’t imagine a better return of investment (ROI) for a conference than that. So my recommendation is to attend Write/Speak/Code every chance you get because you may enter the conference wondering how these amazing women got booked for their first presentation and you may leave very well on the path of being one of them.

As always

Much love,

Susana

 

A Conversation with Ellen K. Pao, tech investor and advocate, the former CEO of reddit, and a cofounder of the award-winning diversity and inclusion nonprofit Project Include

9 Oct

A few weeks ago I attended Write/Speak/Code, a non-profit dedicated to promote the visibility and leadership of technologists with marginalized genders through peer-led professional development that hosts an annual conference and meetup events designed to help you fully own your expertise through writing, speaking, and open source.

That’s a mouthful but they live by every word and more. I can’t stop saying how life-altering attending that conference was for me. Being in a space full of womxn in tech, including brown and black women, was what my heart and soul needed. I needed so badly to feel like I belonged in tech, that it wasn’t me that was the problem with the lack of diversity at work, but that my experienced were reflected in many others.

I promise I will write up a post on what I learned and experienced at that conference, I tweeted up a storm when I attended. 

This conference and the incredible speakers inspired me to start responding to Calls for Proposals to present at technical conferences, to apply to technical workshops, and to apply to get my research published.

But I digress, I told you I would tell you about moderating Ellen K. Pao: Fighting for Inclusion In Silicon Valley.

So when I got an email from Michelle N. (whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting) back in July, saying Julie suggested that we connect given our common involvement in CS + Social Good on campus, I was excited to hear more when she mentioned the possibility of bringing Ellen to speak on campus.

For context, Julie and I took a two-quarter CS + SG course: CS 51 Designing Social Impact Projects and CS 52 Implementing your Social Impact Project via a chosen technical framework. I highly recommend committing to these courses if you’re a student at Stanford. It doesn’t count towards any requirement and the 2 unit load should really be 5 but it is completely worth the time and effort. You can read more about the course here. Julie and I were both summer fellows and worked as ambassadors for Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service where we collaborated on getting the word out to our respective communities, many at the intersection of race, gender, and tech.

Julie recommended me to Michelle and attested to my commitment to combining tech with social good and honestly I was deeply moved that Julie noticed and believed in me enough to think of me.

This is the power of your network, of putting yourself out there, and of being vulnerable enough to voice your opinions and perspective in rooms that aren’t always reflective of your experience. 

Michelle pulled off the major feat of connecting with Ellen, inviting her to speak on campus, organizing student groups Women in CS (WiCS), Stanford Women in Design (SWID), and Stanford’s entrepreneurship community ASES to come together to plan the logistics, culminating in a beautiful event last night.

I am still riding high from the honor and privilege of serving as the moderator of this incredibly inspiring conversation with Ellen. Bellow is a tweet that makes me giggle every time I read it.

Screen Shot 2019-10-09 at 3.25.07 PM

Following the event, a pic with attendees and our hero Ellen K. Pao

Honestly, I have so many emotions following the event that I am having a hard time expressing them. I am speechless, and that is rare.

I will say that I will continue to work towards making tech more inclusive and that the resilience, strength, and commitment to what is true and good that Ellen possesses is what we should all aspire to.

If you haven’t had the pleasure, read Ellen’s book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change in which she tells her full story for the first time, and Project Include, whose mission is to give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech. Project Include is a non-profit that uses data and advocacy to accelerate diversity and inclusion solutions in the tech industry.

But Why Don’t You Listen For Yourself?

Ellen says it best, to watch some of last night’s conversations:

I hope you are inspired for a more inclusive workplace.

I hope you work hard and concretely to move toward a more inclusive workplace.

And I hope that you know that you are not alone in these beliefs and that we will make an inclusive workplace a reality together.

Much love,

Susana

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