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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

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.

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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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