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Si Se Pudo?

12 Jun

A first gen/low income, mom, non-traditional undergrad perspective
B.S. Computer Science AI Track
Stanford University Class of 2020

This week was the last week of classes of the last quarter of undergrad.

For those of you with me since the early days, you know that I’ve been through so many ups and downs, and so many ups that were actually downs, and so, so many rock bottoms. Some day, I may tell you the full chisme, osea the ‘not the autobiography’ autobiography. Aveces, osea siempre, in my world, a way out is always a good thing.

But we’re here. We made it, no?

So many years of wondering if we would ever be able to say, I graduated from X college. And it just happens that our chingona self can say, “I graduated from Stanford with a mother-effin Computer Science in the AI track degree (with three kids in tow – what you do?!!)!” Okay maybe most of that will be in my head but you bet that I will be thinking it while staring down some condescending, mediocre cualquiera in the valley – not the LA valley but this fake Silicon Valley. Wait, does that translate to fake FAKE valley? 🧐

I have been whispering to myself, “just get that college degree” for so long that I never thought to think what I would tell myself once I actually got it. And maybe I’ve read too many inspiring stories of Black and Brown people that have “beat the odds”, that have “made it”, that have gone from homelessness to self-made successes. Because although I could relate to the raw pain of knowing you could make it only to be presented with a new challenge, a new way to prove yourself, I didn’t think about how lonely and angry it could make you feel.

We all love a good story. An inspiring story. But we NEVER respect, honor, nor SEE the person making that story.

We make certain people invisible in this world. We smirk, we look confused, skeptical – most of the time not bothering to try to figure the person out. We move on, we discredit their plans, we don’t believe them, we think ‘Oh okay, this person is all big talk’ if we even bother to think, or do, anything but roll our eyes. We are a cruel people. And we are a hypocritical people. Because when that person becomes “somebody”, we fall all over ourselves clapping and cheering on with tear brimmed eyes because it’s just so damn inspiring. We cheer only once the damn game has been won.

I know I’m incredibly intelligent, I’ve known that my whole life. But I’ve also had to prove that to everyone my whole life. I’ve never had the pleasure of having my answer accepted without an automatic, “are you sure? How do you know?” And that’s at the most polite end. I’ve had to politicize and strategize my words and work to manipulate those around me into thinking that my ideas were their own ideas. I’ve had to lead so many horses to water and convince the horse over and over again that they were the ones leading me. So maybe after so many years of telling myself that once I had that computer science degree from an elite university, that I would be free from that required humiliating and tiresome explanation. But now that I’m done, a sinking sensation has spread from my stomach to my chest to the bottom of my feet because even with a Stanford CS degree in the AI track – those people will keep finding a way to invalidate my accomplishments.

So forgive me for feeling tired and not feeling particularly celebratory while our country is gripped with having to explain the obvious to hateful racists and those who deny that they are racists while spouting hate out of the side of their necks.

Forgive me for feeling so fucking angry and exhausted at having to educate people that Black Lives Matter is not political. Forgive me while I recoil in disgust from White America and the communities of color that are just as racist.

I have my own experience with racism and with being judged as less intelligent or capable because my skin happens to be brown, but what makes me truly sick, what throws me into the deepest despair of depression is knowing that even with the shitty life I have experienced, is knowing that it does not compare – cannot come close to comparing to what Black Americans experience.

So no, I don’t think this is a moment to celebrate. I won’t celebrate what I’ve known all along I was capable of doing.

I will celebrate if these protests continue; if America’s short term memory can finally be seared with the present that never changes; if we do not look away until we all fight for Black Lives Matter no matter the cost to our own personal comfort.

I will celebrate when you accept that our system is fundamentally flawed. That our educational system is failing our children. And that incremental change and reform is not enough. That the broken inner city public school system is nothing more than a pipeline into stagnant water where a meek existence is considered success given the alternative is the prison system. And sure there are hairline cracks that allow a handful to escape and “make it.” But make no mistake about it, those cracks are there not by design but from the outward pressure of our own greatness trying to escape the crushing confinement of failure.

We are capable of running an equitable world.

I will celebrate when you thank us for only wanting equity.

The Most Deafening Sound is Silence

2 Jun

I’ve read too many tweets, threads, LinkedIn posts, etc. where as soon as a Black person posts about their pain there are comments by those in the Latino, Asian, and all non-Black communities that jump in and say “What about us?!” I’ve seen chats where females try to prioritize their trauma as sexual abuse/assault survivors over the Black Lives Matter movement.

I speak from the perspective of: a first-generation Mexican-American; a mother to three daughters; and as an Angeleno from Westlake / Boyle Heights / East LA. I speak as someone who was sexually, emotionally, physically abused by family throughout my childhood. I speak as a former single mother who has had to degrade herself in order to keep a roof over her kids’ head; as a domestic violence survivor; and as someone who has experienced a multitude of prejudice in the workplace/school/relationships for being what I was born as – a brown Latina.

Yet NONE of the pain from these experiences can remotely compare to the pain and racism that Black Americans have to grapple with throughout the entirety of their lives.

I am highly empathetic but I know that I can never fully comprehend the threat that Black people in America face every single day.

Like many of you, I have been on Twitter every waking hour to keep up to date with developments. And like many of you, I have woken up every single day with a crushing pain in my chest, the hurt choking me and making it hard to breathe. I am constantly lightheaded – as even my own self wants to slip out of this reality, and I have so much rage because this is not a new occurrence.

Racism is not new. Police brutality is not new.

Nor has either ever ceased to exist. Racism has actively harmed Black Americans since the founding of this country. We The Protestors tracks and visualizes all police killings since 2015. I encourage you to support their work and to see for yourself why Black Americans (and those who stand with them) are overwhelmed with the compounding effect of so many needless deaths – so many murders without consequences at the hands of police.

I used to question my own feelings as White and other non-Black people gaslighted me for my outrage, for my searing pain at the injustices that the Black community faces. But they were never in the right.

We have seen many instances on Twitter of White / non-Black Americans trying to squash the conversation around Black Lives Matter by saying that it is not appropriate to discuss racism in a professional setting or that it is unhelpful to demand of them to get involved.

They are doing what they’ve done for centuries – using their Whiteness/proximity to Whiteness and unearned power to condescendingly educate us on which is the right way to protest and not.

They continue to value the loss of property over the loss of life and pretend that they are two separate things, as if peaceful protests haven’t been carried out time and time again without producing results.

They continue to curl their lips in disgust at the vision of screaming protestors as if we were uncouth to march and stand for basic human rights and the just treatment of Black Americans. And usually (and time and time again in the past) this has worked.

But we are seeing a shift. As soon as they are called out and see the backlash that can potentially harm their property (e.g. their employment, investments, networks, etc.), they are backtracking. They are apologizing on Twitter and donating to Black organizations. I hope that they are truly remorseful and that they use their privilege to educate their networks, family, and friends. I hope that they can stop seeing themselves as “US” and Black Americans as “THEM”.

The treatment of Black Americans has not changed. America has and continues to treat Black Americans as subhuman, as not feeling pain, as criminals, as a threat, as statistics. What has changed is that the nation is breaking under the weight of racism. What has changed is that the old mainstream views are becoming uncouth, unacceptable to admit publicly, and getting close to real consequences.

Before you make yourself feel better by claiming that you are not a racist, I want to remind you that racism does not exist in extremes or a vacuum. Racism is woven into the daily lives of a Black Americans. Racism is every: micro-aggression; continual requirement for Black people to justify their credentials and ability; time they have to prove why they belong on a space that is dominated by White people, time that they are stereotyped; pulled over; ignored by their doctors; “put in their place” by teachers and counselors; followed in stores; avoided in the street; stared at; seen skeptically; face betrayal when they are subjected to racist behavior by those who they trusted as an ally (and the list goes on and on). Racism is not experienced individually but as the build up of every racist instance they’ve had to deal with that day.

While the list of ways that Black Americans experience racism in the US is non-exhaustive, there are equally many ways you should make a difference in your daily life to fight racism.

Call out the colleague/classmate/boss/professor/investor who is passive-aggressive, who blocks promotions, who speaks condescendingly, who doesn’t invite them to outside of work socializing, who doesn’t hire them, who doesn’t invite them to panels, etc.

Be an observer when you see an interaction with a police officer and use your white privilege and the safety it affords you by policing the police.

Stop your family and friends when they use racist language. Educate them and don’t use the excuse that they are a different generation and “don’t mean it like that.”

Reflect on whether you are prioritizing your fight (as a non-Black POC, LGBTQ, and/or any identity that you belong to) over the NECESSITY of saving Black lives.

Listen and don’t make statements that invalidate their experience such as “I don’t think they meant it that way” claiming that you “give everyone the benefit of the doubt” as if you are being the bigger person. Black people do not have the privilege of blindly trusting everyone and believing that they won’t be harmed.

This is overwhelming but when you want to lean away from the subject because it is “too much” or you can’t handle that much pain – remind yourself that Black Americans don’t have the privilege of distancing themselves from their daily lives.

You don’t have to have the words that makes it all better because no one expects nor believes that your words or any words can make it all better. Don’t use that as an excuse to explain why you’re not saying anything on the matter.

Your silence hurts.

Don’t leave your friends and family wondering which side of the conversation you’re on. If you are not fighting against racism, you are part of the problem.

At minimum, donate to an organization that is listed in the Minnesota Freedom Fund and publicly share your donation while asking your network to do the same.

Don’t expect your Black colleagues / classmates / students to show up as if nothing happened. They are under incredibly painful and extreme duress and should not have to prioritize your pSets, exams, reports, code, etc. over the struggle to be seen as human beings and the grief at the continued murdering of Black Americans by police with impunity.

Actively lighten the load of Black Americans. This can be advocating for your Black colleagues / classmates / students (without requiring them to participate). It includes pressuring your boss or professors to provide paid time off or make assignments and exams optional (without requiring them to reach out). That last part is key. I’ve seen professors offering accommodations IF students reach out. Don’t do that – the onus is on YOU, not them, to realize that they are not in a space to even think about your classroom (nor should they have to).

I understand that the pain many of us are feeling can make us feel numb, detached, deeply depressed but I also realize that this pain will only go away with real lasting change. Quite frankly I wish that everyone felt this pain, maybe then they would demand change if for no other reason than to stop hurting.

As a Latina I particularly ask my Latino community to accept that anti-Blackness permeates our culture and that it is our responsibility to eradicate it. Here’s what NOT to do. Don’t make this about Latinos (and don’t forget that many Latinos are Black Latinos). Do the right thing and stand firmly (al cien) with the Black community in actively fighting for equal justice.

An update on Week 1 of Zoom University

10 Apr

It’s Friday morning and this week has felt like it has lasted FOREVA! Yesterday I had a moment of panic not being able to remember if it was Wed or Thurs until I remembered that I had just done Wed lectures. You know your life has changed fundamentally when you mark the days with which zoom lectures you’ve attended. 😅

Earlier this week I wrote a guide  To (now Online) College Students – You need a plan to succeed taken from my experience juggling being a mom to three girls, being a partner, cleaning, cooking, and being a full time student at Stanford University majoring in Computer Science.

Now that I’ve had my first 5 days of #zoomuniversity let’s dive in and talk about the good, the not so good, and the I wish this quarter was over.

The Good

I’ve kept up with my notes checklist and have tried to be kind to myself. I haven’t had a day where I didn’t work hard and yet I still feel behind. The things is some days I am super productive but half of that productivity goes to caring for my household and mom duties so I feel like I didn’t get enough done school wise. But you know what, I’m effin killing it.

Checklist for Wednesday: Look at that productivity!

Checklist for Wednesday: Look at that productivity!

Overall keeping a Google calendar and a checklist is going well. I just found out that Google Calendar has a sidebar with a task list if that’s more your jam but the task goes away once you check it off and well, I want persistent proof if what I did! 🙂

Celebrate Your Successes!

The Day 90 comment you see is my 90 days of not drinking. I didn’t really take a moment to celebrate that and I should – it’s a big accomplishment. I was using alcohol to numb pain from past trauma and at the back of my head I always feared that I would become an alcoholic like both of my parents. So the decision to go dry and to invest that time and energy into therapy and healing has been my biggest 2020 win.

Advocate For Yourself

Shout out to Engineering Professors Who Have Empathy + High Emotional Intelligence

At this point I have emailed all of my professors my education accommodation letter (here known as your OAE letter) and a note on my circumstances. Below is an email I sent:

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 9.18.34 AM

Email to professors re: my circumstances and asking for extensions over weekday deadlines

I was incredibly appreciative that they quickly responded. I won’t post their response to respect their privacy but they followed the below:

This is How You Should Respond to Your Student During This Time of Uncertainty

  • Acknowledge that their situation is challenging
  • Ask clarifying questions about how you can best help them
  • Reassure them that you are more than happy to be flexible and do what you can to ensure that they succeed
  • Follow through

That’s it. It’s not that hard.

Sadly, not all professors have responded in that manner and it pains me that I have to keep following up. My next step – since I won’t give up on advocating for myself – is to reach out to my advisor and office of accessible education coordinator to explicitly ask for extensions for assignments that are assigned and due on weekdays without a weekend in between. Some people won’t help you unless you make them. It shouldn’t have to be that way but sadly that’s the reality for a lot of people in power.

If there was ever a moment to follow the “Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil” mentality – this is it! We’re in a pandemic, I’m about to follow Ms Londynn B’s example and bring it like:

*youtube video of Londynn B singing One Day – I don’t want no Problems*

The Not So Good

How do I balance being a family caretaker while going to school full time?

unnamed

Valentina, my 3yo, doing youtube preschool – That FACE says it all

A real challenge has been figuring out a balance of caring for my 3yo while attending live Zoom lectures (I have about 7 HOURS of lectures on M/W/F), taking notes, keeping up with dense readings, cooking, showering and looking human, and being there for my teenage daughters. I’m not going to lie – it’s been rough.

My 3yo doesn’t understand why we can’t play and cuddle all day if I am sitting right there in front of the computer. I’ve tried to make a 2 hour rule where every two hours I spend up to an hour with her doing ballet, phonics, going on walks, and just being there for her. But as you can expect, with all of the lectures, sections, readings, and HW’s I feel like I’m running a marathon every single day.

What has kept me going is that SO FAR I am still above water and that I’m down one week – 8 to go. Check in with me next week after all my psets and quizzes are due >_<

I’ve reminded myself that I am an incredible parent and that I am carrying a much heavier load than most and that all I can do is try my best. Love yourself and your efforts. This isn’t a time where you have to thrive – getting by as well as you can is an incredible feat PERIOD.

My Weekends are Meaningless 

In order to “succeed” this quarter, and by succeed I mean pass all my classes and absorb as much as I can, I have to work every day. No weekends. That’s a bitter pill to swallow but unfortunately this is a time when I have to make sacrifices. I’m working from 8 AM – midnight with “breaks” in between to do all my mom duties. If I don’t do a bulk of work on weekends there is no way that I can get all of my schoolwork done.

Working Out – Ms Mariah Carrey Says It Best

*gif with Mariah Carey shaking her head. Text: I don’t hear you, I don’t see you, You don’t exist to me”

I have nothing else to say on that.

Week 1 And I Wish This Quarter Was Over

I’m not going to lie, I wish we were done with school for the year. It’s rough not being around friends, not sitting next to them in lecture and exchanging looks, tips, and smirks as needed. And that’s coming from an ambivert closer to introvert side.

Follow Up With Friends – A Text From You Might Be Just What They Need

As humans, we have a tendency to center ourselves and feel like we are the only ones going through it. We isolate ourselves and wallow in our despair.

But this is a GLOBAL Pandemic. We’re not alone. Reach out to your loved ones – those that bring you joy.

I’ve been texting close friends to both check in on them and to maintain the relationships that I cherish. People are setting up all kinds of slacks and zoom meetups but I’ll be honest – I don’t have the energy to make new friends. Leaning on and being there for existing strong friendships is what serves as a salve when I need a meaningful connection to those outside of my home. Do what helps you!

Focus on What You Can Control

I want to end with reminding you (and me!) that there is only so much under our control. Don’t stress the small stuff – assess what you have to do, what you can do, and move forth.

My guiding thoughts these days:

  1. Prioritize schoolwork that is due soon – we want to graduate y’all!
  2. It is okay to give 80% to one class, 75% to another, and 100% energy to the courses that you want to absorb and that will help you professionally. These percentages will change week to week – do what you gotta do!
  3. When I feel like I can’t do this – reach out to those that will uplift me
  4. Lead with positive energy and mentality. Getting stuck in the – how am I going to do all of this mentality helps no one. Take it a bit at a time, chip away. One step at a time.
  5. Some days I will not be able to do any of the above. I will be kind to myself on those days, try to get some tiny task done and call that day a win and know that I will feel better tomorrow.
  6. We are all struggling.
  7. This will pass

Find your guiding thoughts, mantras, whatever keeps you going. And remember:

The mere act of living through a pandemic while going to school, caring for others, working, etc. IS A MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT and we should all get an A on all of our coursework just by completing the course!

As always with much love and strength,

Susana

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.

IMG_2996

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.

IMG_2997

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:

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 3.53.04 PM

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

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 3.53.45 PM

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

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

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

6 Oct

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!

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