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

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

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

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

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!!

Write/Speak/Code a Latinx In Tech Awakening

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

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

First Timer’s Guide to Grace Hopper #GHC19 A Non-Brief Interjection #LatinxInAI

Welcome back! Continuing with my First Timer’s Guide to Grace Hopper series. Make sure you read Part 1 of the series.

Celebrating #LatinxInAI News:

You know how when things go wrong we blame ourselves and when things go right we tend to minimize it and say things like, “no problem!”, “it was nothing!”, etc.?

This type of minimizing language tends to sneak up and in the spirit of being self-aware and unlearning this behavior I wanted to share my exciting news I received on Tuesday night.

How did this all come about?

For some context, I attended the Write/Speak/Code annual conference this summer as a scholarship recipient from the Kapor Center. This conference was life altering for me and I will write up a blog post(s) about my experience! I tweeted up a storm under #WSC2019Conf feel free to follow me at @susanabenavidez. This all happened as a consequence of my #networking at a Techqueria event hosted by Slack.

Reframing your narrative slide from write session by Angie Jones listing words that undermine our accomplishment inlcuding:
Among my favorite sessions were Angie Jones’ write day session. Follow her, she’s amazing: https://twitter.com/techgirl1908

After the Write/Speak/Code Write Day Session with Angie Jones 🔥 I was inspired to start applying to conferences and other activities around branding and representing as a Latina in tech 👩🏻‍💻.

This past Spring I took CS 224U taught by incredible Professor of Linguistics and, by courtesy, of Computer Science, and Director of CSLI and Stanford NLP Group Christopher Potts and equally impressive Director of Proactive Intelligence at Apple and Consulting Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Stanford Bill MacCartney.

With mentorship from incredibly supportive Cindy Wang I co-authored (with my awesome fellow transfer and also CS major Andy Lapastora) a research paper “Improving Hate Speech Classification on Twitter” detailing existing natural language processing and understanding and machine learning work in this space as well as explaining the motivation of our hand built features, transfer learning, and AI models. We applied to present our paper and our paper got accepted by:

LatinX in AI Research at NeurIPS 2019
The Official LXAI Research Workshop is co-located with NeurIPS in Vancouver CANADA

Major shout out to Latinx In AI Chair and Founder of AccelAI Laura Montoya and Visiting Researcher en Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) Pablo Fonseca who announced the opportunity on Techqueria’s slack and guided me in the submission process. This is what being an advocate and mentor is all about! #LatinxInAI 
During the conference I emailed Cindy Wang, now at Sentropy.io and professor Chris Potts to thank them for their guidance, opportunity, and support. I also emailed Professor Potts for a faculty letter so I can apply to Stanford’s grant program for undergrads to attend conferences in which they present their research. His letter made me cry. Talk about being an advocate and ally to inclusion for Latinx In AI. I have never felt so believed in and sure of the decisions, ethics, and values I hold when working in the exciting field of Artificial Intelligence. I will link the paper after the conference!

I’m going to be a published researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing / Understanding…well let’s let the Reyna explain my feelings 🎉💃🏻

source

Takeaways

I hope you didn’t mind my veering off the #GraceHopper flow but I wanted to share my win because Si No Yo, ¿quién? Roughly: ‘If we don’t Pump Ourselves Up, then Who?’

Never lean away from celebrating your accomplishments and if you struggle with tooting your own horn, ask yourself, how would I respond if my friend shared this news about themselves? You would totally pump them up right? Then there you go, your friend here is you.

By the Way This is Totally Related to Grace Hopper #Networking

A MAJOR component and benefit of attending conferences is the incredible networking opportunities. Don’t shy away from them.

We all feel nervous 😩 about networking but I will share how I approach networking. Networking is one of the reasons I was able to pivot from my accounting clerk job (I hit a ceiling due to not having a degree) to the much more profitable and portable field of business development. Shout out to Anne Marie for connecting me not once, but twice to opportunities that led to promotions and major life moves! 💕 If I had not made that move, I would not have been able to support myself and my two kiddos when I was a single mom in LA and would not have met my partner.

In the next post as I talk about Day 3, technically the first full day of Grace Hopper, I’ll share how this introvert weaved in #networking and being a #socialConnector into the conference many sessions, sponsor events, and career fair. I highly recommend reading Minda Harts The Memo. You’re welcome 😉 and thank you for reading!

First Timer’s Guide to Grace Hopper #Newbie #GHC19 Part 1 of Series

After applying to attend Grace Hopper three years in a row, Stanford sponsored me along with other fellow Computer Science undergrads + masters (majority) to attend GHC19!

Today is the LAST DAY 😭 and while I rest my poor feet 👣 before the closing celebration 💃🏻I thought I’d share my experience so far (while the impressions are still fresh on my mind).

DAY 1: MONDAY 9/30 TRAVEL DAY ✈️

What I did: The first day was a travel day for me. Not knowing when to head to the conference I booked a Monday morning flight connecting in Houston with 1 1/2 hour layover. I arrived in Orlando at 6 PM and to my hotel before 7 PM. Stanford made and paid our hotel reservations (2 Stanford students to a room). I wish they paid for our flights up front as I had trouble coming up with the airfare so by the time I booked my flight in late August, the nonstop flights were $1200+ so I booked a nonstop flight ~$750 which was the cheapest I could find. We will be reimbursed after the conference for up to $700.

On my early flight SFO -> Houston -> Orlando

GHC flight to

What I wish I did: I wish Stanford had provided me with the funds to book my flight as soon as I was accepted. I would have taken a nonstop flight on Tuesday as I really just lost a day to traveling and getting behind school lectures + coursework.

I wish Stanford had made a reservation to dinner / meetup before the conference so we could have a chance to meet friendly and familiar faces.

Day 2:  TUESDAY 10/1 Registration + Career Fair Crawl + Techqueria Meetup!

What I did: I made the very rookie mistake of arriving at 4 PM to register before the career fair (5 – 6 PM). I ended up waiting 3 hours to get my badge. I did some homework while I was on the snaking line and chatted with my new friend and roommate.

The career fair crawl came and went while we waited and waited and waited…

registration line

Silver lining of the very long wait: I got to know my roommate really well as we talked about classes, aspirations, our backgrounds, our shared first generation experience, and so much more.

At 6:50 PM as I handed my student ID to one of the registration workers I got a notification from Grace Hopper apologizing for the inconvenience but the SYSTEM WAS DOWN and for attendees to return the next day at 5 AM to pick up their badges.

As I held my breath for my badge to print I thought how the heck am I supposed to find the silver lining in this? My badge printed and I let out a huge sigh of relief.

I booked a Lyft and ran to the ride share pick up to head to the Techqueria meetup.

Techqueria is a nonprofit that serves
the largest community of Latinx in Tech 🌮
👉🏼https://techqueria.org/ to signup

slack meetup info

I was so appreciative that members of Techqueria formed a Grace Hopper channel and volunteered to make the above beautiful invite, plan the reservation and get us all together. Shout out to Yanessa and Mitzi for making this happen!

I have never felt so at home than I did with these amazing Latinas. My ears were so happy to hear the English -> Spanish -> Spanglish vocal dancing.

Whether we were from Boyle Heights, Seattle, Chicago, New York, the Bay Area, or donde sea (wherever) –  we came from shared experience and seeing my experiences reflected in these warm and beautiful faces filled my heart and soul with hope. Can you imagine if we got to work in the same company? Las maravillas we would build!

The connections I met that night were meaningful and deeply personal and I will always treasure the conversations we had.

We had 40+ Latinxs attend the meetup at local business Amor Em Pedacos, a Brazilian empanadas restaurant

techqueria meetup

After the restaurant closed at 10 PM four of us went looking for a place to keep chatting. I am so glad I put myself out there because the payoff was that I got to be in a space where I could voice my experiences to and in tech without judgement, I felt understood and I made friends that I want to keep collaborating with.

What I wish I did:

You could say that I missed out on the career crawl but honestly I think if it hadn’t been for the long line, I may have experienced the career fair from a place of trepidation and isolation. I wouldn’t have got to know my roommate and I don’t know that I would have had the mental energy to attend the meetup. I was reenergized every time I bumped into one of these amazing ladies during the conference and I felt like I was here with my family, not alone in a crowd of 25,0000.  Finding this beautiful community reminded me again that I belong in tech and that there is a large and vibrant community of Latinx in Tech.

This Latina’s non-traditional path to tech: Part 0

I’m Susana, mom to 3 amazing daughters, Latina in tech with much to say.

I left a lucrative job in legal business development to pursue my undergrad computer science degree full time at Stanford.

Why you ask? Some may say I am a masochist but I say I am a life long learner that wanted to lead by example for my daughters and show them that fulfilling your long term goals is worth the hard work and risk.

The long story goes way back to my HS days and immediately after (which will require a separate post). The shortish overview is that I took a leave of absence from Loyola Marymount after one semester (spoiler: I never went back) to work full time and help my family, I got married soon after (them Catholic conservative parents) and had my girls at 20 and 21.

I quickly found myself living in a leaky basement illegal unit in East LA with a man that was abusive and no way to support myself and my girls.

I’ve worked since I was 14 but working and making enough to pay for childcare in addition to basic necessities was almost impossible. I applied for a city job as a clerk typist at the recommendation from a HS Economics teacher. Eventually I was able to find a way out of that dangerous situation (so many separate future posts).

Let’s fast forward to me living in downtown LA where as a side hustle I started writing human interest pieces for a local publication (for free because I strategically used it to build my brand and portfolio). Through the parents social media group I founded (creating a diverse and powerful network and augmenting my side hustle), I met an incredible supportive friend AM who believed in me and introduced me to her network. She’s done this twice for me. Both times it has been pivotal to my being here.

In 2015 I was a business development specialist at one of the top global firms where I was the Technology Transactions and Life Sciences Business Development Lead. It’s a mouthful. It’s also still one of my proudest achievements. My peers were graduates of ivy league universities and most had advanced degrees. Here I was with my High School diploma from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights (Go Roughriders!) and I had the respect of the firm’s leadership. But it took a lot of moves and sacrifices to get there and my neck was sore from my head tapping the ceiling I’d reached.

I could have stayed there. It was a high pressure and stress environment where my professional learning was exponential. But I knew that I wanted my degree. I wanted my degree because the unfinished nature of it was ensnared in deeply painful memories, as a first-generation / low income woman of color I valued having a degree, and I understood the importance of signaling and portability.

I was enthralled with all of the pitches from startups that crossed my desk and I kept seeing a recurring and dominant profile of founders: White male grad from Stanford, major: Computer Science.

I can’t nor care to change my ethnicity, skin color, or gender but I could get a degree and it seemed like I was going to have to get it from Stanford. Major? Computer Science.

I’ll leave you with this initial seed that sparked my interest so you can get a sense of my path to tech (i.e. I have to get my three year old to sleep).

Where I’ve Been + 1st day Senior year @Stanford

First, I’ve been super inconsistent with posting. I’d been taking several intensive creative writing classes at school and all of my efforts was poured into those courses. But happy to get back to writing. You will see a shift on what I write about, I will still share my experiences but I will also start writing about my technical experience and journey.

This has been a heck of a year with many setbacks but also opportunities for growth and introspection and I feel ready to share.

Biggest update: I’m a senior at Stanford, as in I am only 3 sweet quarters away from having my computer science AI track diploma.

As many of you know, it has been a long road here folks. All of my courses are grad level this quarter – I love me some study groups w/ students who aren’t stuck on the high school hamster wheel of competing and lack of collaboration. I’m excited for Andrew Ng’s CS 229 Machine Learning course (this morning’s lecture – talk about natural high) and (Hi! Moses Charikar! Loved CS 221 Artificial Intelligence in the Spring), CS 230 Deep Learning course (also w/ Andrew Ng), CS 224W Machine Learning with Graphs because I mean come on talk about cool, and CS 238 Decision under Uncertainty (still trying to figure out what is not covered in this course). I have another class but one of these has to go bc go-hard type A 20 somethings may like taking 19 units but this mom of three already has a heavy load. You try raising a 3yo, 13 yo, and 14yo with those units and then get back to me. 😉

But to back up and give you some insight as to why I am so excited…

I’ve been working hard to face and work through my past traumas (and boy are there many) to meaningfully improve (not just patch which I’m great at) my mental health.

I could write a book about how difficult it is to get help as a first generation / low income Latina. There are so many hurdles to just being able to admit that you need help, that you need to slow down and really change how you cope with hurt and past memories. I’ve always been pro-mental health resources for others but for myself? It took extreme events to crack me wide open and even then I resisted. So I am proud of all of the hard work I’ve done and continue to do to make sure I am in tune with myself and with what makes me feel safe, healthy, and happy.

Earlier this summer

I was in a bad car accident on the 280 N

on the way to my internship where I collided with the cement barrier at 70+ mph when a car swerved onto my lane (the fastest lane). That collision ricocheted my 2006 Honda Accord across all lanes of the freeway (with minimal driving visibility as all airbags deployed) until the car kept going up the hillside and I thought to pull the emergency break on the way down before I reversed back onto morning traffic. I managed to climb out of my totaled car as it was smoking only to start violently shaking after a couple of steps. I looked around to make sure I didn’t hit anyone else and scanned for the other car. It never stopped, just kept going. And it’s crazy to admit but that really got to me. It hurt my feelings deeply that someone wouldn’t even stop to check if I was okay after they caused the accident. Two very kind and generous samaritans pulled over and helped me dial 911. I wish I remember their names because they did just what I needed. To take control and get help and to hold me so I wouldn’t have a full panic attack.

It took me a while to get over that accident. When I collided with the barrier I was terrified my car would flip over to the other side (and onto oncoming drivers on the 280 S) where there is a significant descent. I thought to grip and control my steering wheel but as I careened across all of the lanes in rush hour traffic I kept thinking of my girls and who would mother them if I died. I’ve experienced a few near death events in my life including being held at gunpoint a couple times but

I had never felt this kind of raw fear of dying before.

Having so much to live for makes a fucking difference, I’ll tell you that.

It was a life altering experience for me. It got me thinking about who I am and whether I am living by my principles. It made for a very vulnerable and emotionally difficult summer.

I remade the decision of not drinking.

I’ve done this before, going through dry spells to prove that I am nowhere near in danger of becoming an alcoholic like my parents. If you were raised by alcoholics, you know what I mean. The fear that you’ll end up just like them is real and can elicit feelings of shame, self-loathing, among other lovely negative self-attacks. But this time was different.

I didn’t want to keep using a drink here or there, ‘I just need a drink to unwind’, ‘I need a drink to brave this networking event’, etc. I was getting a bit too comfortable with the sentence ‘I need’ always ending with ‘drink’. So I decided to go cold turkey. First to just get a sense of being able to go without alcohol (without setting a goal bc you can’t fail if you have no goals), then to see how I coped with everything sober, then to remember that I am fundamentally someone who holds many negative associations with alcohol, and then because I feel so much more present with my family and to be honest because I like myself so much more sober. It’s hard when you get a memory flashback and you drink to drown it bc it’s too much to try to even acknowledge the memory, but then you get sad and you think of other effed up memories and you drink more so you can just sleep and forget. It’s not a good cycle and one I wanted to break. It’s been two weeks of not drinking and I am really digging the strength I have shown when these memories or my PTSD is triggered.

I feel like brave Susana again and I like that.

So here I am back on sunny campus and I feel light. I’m smiling as I bike through the engineering quad to get to class. I don’t get anxious at what a sweaty mess I am after the 4 mi bike ride.

I feel at home when I sit down on the front row with my friends and really take in that I am here, in front of Andrew Ng about to have my brain tickled with knowledge.