Written by Kary Cabrera, a Latinas de RTC member, who recently was awarded and completed the University of Pennsylvania’s DEEPenn STEM program.
A career in technology, research, and engineering has been in my dreams since I was a young teen. At only fourteen years old, I made the ambitious decision to go after and achieve a graduate degree even though I didn’t know what that truly meant at the time. In high school, I interned at a research lab. This experience showed me how technology, and my skills as a future engineer, could drastically improve people’s lives. Thus, my passion for empowering communities through my work fueled my desire to pursue graduate school.
Although universities are becoming increasingly diverse, few Latinos pursue engineering, and even fewer pursue engineering at the graduate level. Knowing this meant that I, a first-generation Latina, was committing myself to a field I was severely underrepresented in. As I approached the end of my sophomore year of college, I felt passionate, but also overwhelmed by the prospect of applying to graduate school. Sadly, I even began second-guessing if engineering was a profession I could be successful in.
Thankfully, and at just the right time, I learned about the DEEPenn STEM program offered through the University of Pennsylvania. I learned about this opportunity through Rewriting the Code (RTC), a non-profit organization committed to disrupting gender and racial inequity in the tech industry by equipping and empowering college and early-career women in tech. I have been a member of RTC for a couple of years and have always received the most supportive guidance, opportunities, connections, and a sense of belonging. RTC also has a strong community of Latina members, like me. We are called Latinas de RTC. Latinas de RTC offers programming, support, and a community that authentically highlights what it means to be a Latina in tech.
When Latinas de RTC contacted me about the DEEPenn STEM program, I immediately knew it was a perfect opportunity for me to network with students like myself and develop a greater sense of belonging in academia. However, getting selected would also mean my first time traveling out of state. The thought of dealing with travel logistics terrified me. But still, I applied. hoping that if this was the right opportunity for me, I’d be admitted and be able to attend.
To my surprise, it was during the beginning of midterms when I received the email- the sign I was looking for informing me that I had been accepted! I knew the people who read my application saw potential in me, and I was eager to meet them. Even better, the dates aligned perfectly with my schedule, a rarity as an engineering student, and it was a perfect way to reward myself after three weeks of intense midterms.
Once at Penn, I spent three days exploring the University of Pennsylvania, attending seminars to learn about graduate school, and networking with a diverse group of students who looked like me. I had a fantastic time with UPenn’s first-ever DEEPenn STEM program, learning the journey of students, professors, and post-doctorates alike from “breaking bones and running into walls,” the feeling of being underrepresented in the field you enjoy, the struggles of leaving family behind, and quieting the voice in your head telling you that you are an imposter among qualified individuals. I learned about the process of applying to graduate schools, and what to expect during grad school, along with touring laboratories and attending lectures. Did you know that the first general-purpose electronic computer is housed at UPenn? I didn’t! But I saw it! I also learned that Philadelphia is full of history, and I was fortunate to spend a weekend learning about it! I was captivated by the contrast between historic and modern architecture, which created a setting rich in history and innovation.
The first day and night of DEEPenn STEM consisted of networking and community building with other participants and hearing from guest speaker, Dr. Donita Brady. It was an eventful first day! I was shocked by how different the East Coast was from California and I was astounded to see President Joe Biden shopping at the UPenn bookstore that same day! It seemed unfathomable that I would be able to see the President from afar, let alone travel out of state and step foot on one of the oldest institutions in the United States, yet here I was.
The second day was jam-packed with lectures, one-on-one conversations with faculty, and campus tours. I had the opportunity to ask my burning questions during an overview of the Ph.D. application process with the director and associate director of graduate admission for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. What followed were seminars about writing effective personal and research statements, requesting letters of recommendation, and research talks by leading experts. I was most inspired by Dr. Ottman Tertuliano, who spoke about the reality of graduate education, the positive and negative sides of graduate school, the fulfillment he gets from his research, and the impact he aims to have with it. My favorite moment of the day was speaking with Dr. Robert Riggleman and Sam Layding about the importance of incorporating ethics into artificial intelligence and machine learning curriculums as these fields are rapidly expanding. Understanding the dangers of mishandling data is critical to ensure we do justice to the communities we represent.
I was certain that diversity in graduate education was a myth, yet I was astounded to meet graduate students with similar cultural backgrounds and research interests. The most inspiring and emotional moment of my experience was being told that I was wanted at UPenn. I had begun doubting my ability to succeed but talking to graduate students and professors about their research and engaging in stimulating discussions about it convinced me that I was prepared and ready to take on this new challenge. During the graduate resource fair, I spoke to a postdoctoral student about their research, mapping where the information and uncertainty lie in a system using machine learning, and I immediately recognized the logic gates I so dreaded. It was at that moment that everything I learned clicked, and we engaged in a conversation about the potential for machine learning to help us understand the flow of information in our world, the importance of AI ethics, and the pains of installing library dependencies on our computers.
The Final Day
On the third and final day of the program, I toured UPenn’s University Hospital. I was both fascinated by the research being conducted and saddened that the event was nearing an end. Over just three days, I had completely rebuilt my confidence in my capabilities. In fact, I was so empowered and determined that I instantly began drafting my CV and listing each of the research programs I was eager to apply for. When I returned home and to school on Monday, I immediately began informing my peers about all the fantastic things I had seen and learned during DEEPenn STEM. I also felt a newfound eagerness to network with the graduate students at my university and learn more about their research. As I reflect on this experience, I’m sad that I once thought there might not be a place for me in academia. However, thanks to Rewriting the Code for recommending me to DEEPenn STEM, I have rediscovered my “why” and recommitted to impacting my community through graduate school and research.
If you’re a current woman-identifying student/early-career technologist and want to check out Rewriting the Code, you can learn more and sign up here: teamrtc.org/signup (it’s FREE).
If you’re a company or organization interested in partnering with us, check out our website to see how we can work together to support and empowers the next generation of engineers and tech leaders: https://rewritingthecode.org/companies/.