Recently we interviewed Along King, active blogger and Computer Science student at Stanford. As an African-American CS major, Alona has the frequent experience of being asked whether she is in the right place on her way to one of her usual classes in the CS department. This has happened so often to her and her fellow African-American classmates that she felt compelled to write an article entitled “No, I Am Not Lost.”
We were so excited about her post that we wanted to catch up with her and hear her thoughts on minorities in STEM—including, but not limited to CS and coding—and what people can do to correct the stereotypes Alona and other minorities face when pursuing the study of STEM subjects.
Q: We really loved your post “No, I Am Not Lost”. What kinds of responses have you gotten from the article?
A: All of the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people have reached out to tell me “Nice job,” and to say things like, “I’m really proud of you.”
I’ve even had some high school students who are going through similar experiences reach out to ask if I can give them any advice based on what I’ve experienced, or pass on any wisdom. One student has asked me if I might be willing to be a mentor. So yeah, it’s been really very affirming.
Q: Please tell us a little more about yourself.
I’m a rising junior in college. In addition to my course load, I’m teaching CS106a, which is something undergrads who have passed the class can go back and do. Only a very small percentage of students make it through CS106a, so if you’ve made it, you’re in a position where you can probably teach it.
As far as my day-to-day goes, I like building applications from the ground up. This means everything from inception to hooking up servers to front end/front facing portions that we interact with a lot. It also means working on API calls, which is how front-facing part of an app communicates with the server,s where you might house information and data.
Some people specialize in server side, some in front end, but I am a full stack web application developer.
Q: Yikes! What is that (it sounds amazing!)?
A full stack web application developer is someone who can do everything, both front end and back end. I was drawn to this because I love the idea that I could built technology that actually works well with people.
To me, this means technology that assists us with our jobs instead of making us frustrated with how the technology is working. I’ve had opportunities to build intuitive tech, but I also enjoy database architecture, which means how we can get information quickly, and how we can make it so a site doesn’t crash when a lot of people visit. This kind of work involves a lot of knowledge of algorithms. I love when I can get creative with CS work, when I’m challenged with new logic problems that I have to solve.
Q: In your article, you wrote “Stereotype threat and feelings of isolation are huge obstacles many students of color face in my major.” Can you say a little more about how these obstacles get in your way on a daily basis, and what you’ve done to overcome them?
A: Stereotype threat is when people are kind of against you in a general way. They think you’re not going to be smart, and so you end of falling into traps regarding the expectations others have for you. Instead of putting yourself in a position where you might take a risk, and where you might also make a mistake, you avoid that. You also end up isolating yourself.
In high school I was in a lot of AP classes. I was always the only African-American in the classes. In math, whenever I would say something in class, it was as if what I was saying spoke for all black people, for my whole race. For some of my classmates, I think I was the only person of color they actually spoke with.
This was really challenging, always having to answer for my race. It can make you weigh your words and actions more carefully, and also make you not want to speak at all.
I think that when you’re not in close contact with people who have different backgrounds, it’s hard to understand their perspective. Women of color might stay quiet in class, and then people might think it’s because they don’t have anything to say when in fact it’s because they’re uncomfortable with this feeling that you have to represent something bigger than just yourself every time you open your mouth to speak.
Q: What is your advice for people who don’t fit the STEM stereotype?
I’ve often been left out when people are choosing partners for lab projects or other team work, because people look at me assume I’m not going to be a strong partner. My advice would be, just try to keep your eyes on the prize. What has helped me in those situations is reaching out and trying to connect with teachers, with counselors.
I think there should be more communities online to connect people who are in this situation, so we can get strength from each other. There are already some great organizations that connect people. “Women in Technology” is a great one I can recommend, and there are a lot more.
For other students, on the outside of the experience, I would say: Figure out how to help. Initiate a conversation with someone you feel is usually left out. Just ask them what they like to do, what their goals and ambitions are. Connecting with people and supporting them isn’t hard, it just requires a little initiative.
Q: Research shows that minority students, more frequently than we like, come from low-income homes, which means they have it harder than other students. Why should those students take an interest in math, when they have so much other stress in their life?
I did a book drive when I was younger to collect books to donate to patients in children's hospitals, and one of the things the patients told me was that they looked forward to the books because it helped take their mind off their pain and escape a little bit. I think one way to convince students it’s worth learning math, as well as studying in general, is to give them an escape.
There are a lot of ways math connects to other subjects—Computer Science, etc—which could potentially help improve their situations. There is so much data science that needs to be happening, and if you’re good at math you can fill those jobs, which are in high demand.
Also, I would say that math can be an outlet, and can definitely help improve their situation. Again, think about the future, keep your eyes on the prize of what you want when you’re older.
Q: What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: One project that’s really close to my heart is something that will help establish more community between minority students involved in computer science. Like I said before, there are some great communities out there already, and I want to be part of making them grow, and of starting my own, ideally. I would love to see that be the thing I’m working on in the next five years.
I wouldn’t be opposed to having a CS job, or teaching either. My main goal is to be engaged and involved, and giving back.