Prepare to read a really long post (probably the longest post I’ll have). I wanted to have a specific story dedicated to my feelings and journey as an undergraduate student. I was inspired to write this after Eliot’s luncheon lecture about his own career path.
Time to make a change
I’ll first start my story with the first university I attended in fall 2015 which was Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL (FAU). I was a commuter student for two years at this university and would pretty much have the same routine everyday. Go to classes, eat lunch with some friends, go home, work on homework, eat dinner with family, sleep, and repeat. Since I was just going to classes and then back home it was hard to socialize with others more often. I decided my sophomore year that I was tired of feeling like I didn’t have that many friends or activities outside school work. I decided to look at the list of clubs on campus to see what I was interested in. Going through the organizations I found one that caught my eye called Toastmasters. The name was so unique so I looked into what it was about. I saw that it was a club to help people learn leadership and public speaking skills. I figured I could use better public speaking skills and I liked the idea of being a leader so I decided to go to a meeting. That meeting changed my life. I had met so many nice people and to this day claim that I have never been in a room with this many nice and supportive people. I also found another organization to join and that was Society for Women Engineers (SWE). This club I had heard a lot more about and it was perfect for me being a pre-computer engineering student. However, I never really felt close to the members in SWE compared to the members of Toastmasters. It seemed like everyone had been in the club already for a while and became really close so I felt a bit out of place. After all this time of feeling in a routine and feeling like I didn’t have many friends and activities (minus the Toastmasters group since those meetings were the highlight of my week) I had the idea of transferring schools. I decided to apply to the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL (USF) and was accepted for summer 2017.
Transitioning into USF
My journey of moving to a university four hours away from home had begun. I was a little nervous and sad to leave my family but I had a good feeling about it. The first summer I was there was a little boring as the campus is much quieter during the summer compared to the school year. I was taking two courses so I wouldn’t fall even more behind on graduating so it definitely ended up being a more relaxed summer. That summer I also felt kind of lonely but I knew that this wasn’t a good representation of how the university normally is since I had multiple people tell me not to worry. I did however have a good time with my roommates that summer with getting a pet fish, drawing together, and going to the pool a few times. The following years I joined the female engineering learning community which was great as I had made a lot of friends in engineering who I could relate to. We had a couple of events in the common room to get us to hang out together and some of us went to events outside of that. I felt so much better about being at USF because living on campus made it so easy to meet up with classmates at the library or engineering buildings to study and just hang out. I had also joined the Toastmasters club at USF and I helped it grow overtime and have now been the secretary for 3 years! I had never really been an officer of an organization before and I absolutely love it. I get to collaborate with other officers and come up with new ideas for our club’s growth. I also was able to attend a bunch of tech related workshops and club meetings to learn new topics in tech I might not have known about and just to make more friends. Being here at this university and living on campus has made it so much easier to meet with friends, study with others in person, and explore new organizations. It has been a really great experience so far and continues to be.
How I decided on my major
My major at USF is computer engineering. People are always wondering how I decided on it especially since I’ve pretty much stuck with it since freshman year. It actually started when I was in preschool believe it or not. I found a yearbook from my preschool back in high school and there was a page with everyone’s picture and below was what they wanted to be when they grew up. Everyone had the basic answer that a 4 year old might say such as dancer, movie star, singer, fire fighter, artist, etc. However, when I looked at my photo I saw “computer worker(or programmer I can’t quite remember)” written underneath. I just laughed because I know my mom has been saying for years how I said I wanted to work with computers. My dad works in Information Technology (IT) and I just saw him as my role model as a kid and decided I wanted to be like him. As I got older he took my sister and I to take your kids to work day and I thought it was cool even if I didn’t understand anything he was saying about what he does. As the time went by and I was learning more about tech, I saw that the stuff my dad did working in IT wasn’t that interesting to me. My dad really wanted me to go for management information systems (MIS) since I kept saying I wanted to do what he did and that was his path in school. However, I wanted to be more creative, inventive, and innovative with my degree and I was not finding my definition of that in MIS. I started to look into engineering since I thought of it as more of a design type degree. That is when I decided computer engineering would be the right major for me.
Some doubts and impostor syndrome
Even though I chose computer engineering, there were times where I started to overthink whether computers was even what I wanted to do still. I had thought back to my high school days of taking a bunch of tech classes to prep for my degree in computer engineering and I remembered how some of the classes weren’t that interesting. I didn’t mind the Photoshop and video editing classes I took but there were some others that ended up not being that interesting overall that mostly had to do with programming. In college I started looking into other engineering majors and tried to see if there were any that were more interesting (I looked into every engineering major FAU offered since this was when I was in doubt mostly). There was one course however I really enjoyed that I took at FAU and that course was logic design where we had to build circuits on a bread board and draw out diagrams and I thought it was so fun. I realize overall that I am a visual learner so drawing things out for me helps me understand things a lot better. That course got me thinking maybe I wanted to go more towards the hardware/electrical route. The only time I switched my major was to electrical engineering at FAU but soon afterwards I decided to switch back to computer engineering after seeing all the radio, optics, and wireless courses I’d have to take and it was definitely a bit of a turn off since that wasn’t super interesting either. I also was not very strong in physics so that wasn’t going to help either. After finally sticking with computer engineering, I started looking at the courses I would be taking and I started to get excited on my preconceived opinions about what would be covered. When I got to the courses and started looking through the textbooks I had really been disappointed about the material we would be learning. This has actually been a common thing throughout my undergraduate years. Although my classes aren’t super interesting, I still ended up sticking with computer engineering and still to this day wonder what I will do with it in the end.
My first internship experience
Finding out about UX design
So like I mentioned, UX design I first learned about at Raymond James where I was looking to see what type of tech jobs were available to me to look into. The following encounter I had with UX was with a fellowship called Rewriting the Code (RTC) (Highly recommend to female computer science and engineering students!). In the fellowship application it asked what topics in tech you are interested in and there were a ton a to chose from, Blockchain, Fintech, Web development, Game development, Hardware, UX/UI etc. The first time I applied I chose hardware, web development, robotics, AI, and mobile development. I unfortunately didn’t get into the fellowship but there was still a member option which really was just being added into a Facebook group. When I first joined the group I noticed that they had affinity groups or just other groups based on certain tech topics. I joined the ones based on my choices on the application however I started to realize I wasn’t really interested in some of the topics I had chosen. The second time I applied to the fellowship (which I haven’t heard back from yet) I chose the topics of UX/UI, mobile development, web development, and game development. I loved and still love the content that the UX/UI affinity group posts and I feel like it definitely could be a field that I want to be apart of.
Personal projects in UX
Besides joining RTC I actually found out my school was having an Intro to UX/UI workshop with the club WICSE (Women In Computer Science and Engineering). I had finally been glad to see my school have something relating to UX/UI since we have no courses or clubs that really relate to this new field I am interested in. When I went to the workshop I felt I had an idea of what they were going to talk about due to the hours of research I had done on the topic. There were a few people from different companies working in the UX field and I ended up chatting to one of them about the work she does. I ended up talking with her further over LinkedIn telling her my worries and fears of getting into the field. Being a computer engineer trying to get into a design role is not the easiest because the work you do as an engineer is very different from what designers learn in school. I felt super behind on my knowledge and there is also just so much that goes into UX/UI. When I voiced these concerns to her she asked if I wanted an accountability partner to help me work on a personal project. (In UX/UI, personal projects in a portfolio are super important to get a job). I agreed and found a list of potential projects and ended up choosing to redesign the CNN web page. I scheduled deadlines of when I would have things done (I have not finished this project but I do have a mini prototype/mockup – https://xd.adobe.com/view/ac0dae59-847f-4830-6b41-4567cc6e448e-da3c/?fullscreen). From the research, to the wireframes, to the design, it has all been the process I’ve gone through to get to this prototype so far.
Self teaching… Not as easy as it sounds
I felt like my design skills were not that great so I had looked on how to build my visual design skills. I found a course on Lynda that I am currently still getting through that is a path of becoming a graphic designer since visual design skills of layout, color, and typography are common things UX/UI designers should know. Though I have been trying my best to learn the stuff on my own I still feel like I am missing the formal education that is mapped out for you by a school or online program. I feel like I don’t know what I need to know or what to focus on. Studying everything is a little overwhelming and doesn’t seem very effective. I feel like it is much more difficult to push yourself out of your comfort zone when you are teaching yourself certain things whereas in a classroom setting you are being pushed harder with the feedback given which you also don’t get much of by doing things on your own. I personally like a structured setting and with UX that is a very difficult thing to find online. I have looked and looked and I haven’t found a great online self teaching program that is also free. One day if I ever find a bunch of different resources I would love to create a course or blog or something on how to learn UX/UI design on your own without formal education through an institution and for free. First I need to find the right path for myself before I can be ambitious and share it with others.
Going to grad school for design?
I had been looking for universities that have degrees relating to UX/UI design in some way shape or form. I started thinking about higher education because of what I mentioned before with the fact that I feel like the stuff I’m learning on my own isn’t enough to get me a job later with the background I have. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I felt like without any prior design experience it would be very difficult to prove myself as an aspiring designer just with stating I’ve learned the tools. I decided to look for schools that had design or UX/UI courses. I found at some point that Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is a degree that mixes technology, design, and psychology into one degree. I thought it was really cool and also very applicable to what I might want to do. It mixes my love of art and degree of technology and my interest in psychology and the mind (I have not yet taken a psychology class but will in the fall). I thought this was perfect. I came to realize quickly that not many universities offer this type of program or they have something similar under a different name (which makes it even more complicated to find it). I basically tried finding lists of universities with HCI masters programs and only found a handful and they were Carnegie Mellon, Iowa State University, Georgia Tech, and a few others. When I was looking deeper into these programs, this was also around the time I was looking for internships for summer of 2019 and had no luck. So I started looking instead for research programs since research is a big part of masters programs.
Finding a research position
I went to talk to the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) to start looking for research programs since they handle all research type positions and I had been curious to know more about my options. I met with one of the research mentors and he had mentioned the option of a research program over the summer which are called REU programs (Research Experience for Undergraduates) and I thought ok this would be a great option. He walked me through the process of how to chose programs that I wanted to apply to and told me to probably have about 6-8 programs I was interested in to have a better chance of acceptance. I went to the NSF (National Science Foundation) website and found the programs that might have related to HCI and found a few that were related to it. In the end I ended up choosing 9 programs to apply to which were – Rochester Institute of Technology, Galludet University, UNC Charlotte, University of Florida, Iowa State University, Washington State University, Carnegie Mellon, DREU (this program matches you to a university program based on your interests), and finally the University of Texas Arlington. After applying to these programs I ended up with three offers, two potential interviews, and the rest I was declined from. I say potential interviews because I had been already accepted into programs I had an interest in. The three offers I received was for Iowa State University, DREU which they chose New York University (NYU), and University of Florida. I finally made the decision to go to Iowa State (where I am currently writing this blog post from) and it honestly was the best decision to come here.
Iowa State REU (so far)
The REU program I chose at Iowa State has been an amazing experience even if we are only 2 weeks into the program. I have loved every moment of it since I got off the plane and met with the other interns. From the other interns I’ve been with, to the mentors we have for our projects, to the professors that are here giving us lectures, the technology they use, and just the endless amount of opportunities. I have only been here two weeks but this school has really made me already start wondering if I would want to do a masters in HCI here. I’m hoping by the end of the program Ill see if going for a graduate degree is something I want to do and if it’ll be here at Iowa State but honestly who knows what the future holds. I want to take on every opportunity I can, learn as much as I can, and talk to as many people as I can.
This is my story up until now within my undergraduate schooling. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I still apologize for it being so long but I really appreciate those who took the time to read through it. Thank you to everyone who has been there through all of these times the good and the bad. Thank you to my family, friends, coworkers/interns, and just anyone who I’ve had the chance to network with. All of you have been apart of my journey and I have learned so much from each of you and I’m so grateful for that.