Q: Can you introduce yourself and your role in the Allen School?
A: My name is Andrey, I'm a fifth year master's student here now, and I focus on computer vision.
Q: What was it like transitioning from Moscow to Israel and finally to the American school system? What were some of the challenges you faced?
A: Yeah, I mean, I'd say in Israel, definitely the language barrier was a massive challenge. That doesn't really apply here in America. But in Israel, I knew 10 words coming in. So I had to, you know, try to communicate with a whole new set of people while learning a new language. So that was awful. I would never do that again. In the US it was definitely easier just because English is taught in Russia so I was pretty fluent coming in. I guess, coming in at a very young age, or a relatively young age, is pretty different. But I know, elementary schools in Russia are a little bit crazy. From my experience. Like there's a lot that was very different coming in, but I don’t think I struggled much with Middle School, really. I came here, right before Middle School. It's tough too, because I haven't reflected on a lot of this. Because, in some sense, I guess, we've been talking about this interview, which is like, “Are you the first person in your family to get a bachelor's degree in the United States?” Well, I guess if you think about it. I just haven't really thought about it, even though I do fit into many of those categories. But I do think that now it's good to reflect on. To see how far you've come. I can't say I struggled too greatly if I'm just being fully honest. But I think one thing that sort of affected my family in some sense, I felt it was that I didn't have expectations to play into or play against going into university. Because nobody in my family has had a good amount of university education in other countries. Like, for example, I didn't even have any idea that computer scientists working with computers were called in college. I just knew I liked computers. And then my friends were like, “so have you marked computer science in your application”, and I would be like “huh?”. So I guess because I felt like I didn't have strong expectations to like play into or against. It was difficult to know what I was trying to get out of the college experience early on. I started navigating trying to have, for myself, the expectation of just doing really, really well. Or just, you know, like having lots of ambition and change, learn as much as I can really, especially in retrospect. Yeah, I just didn't really connect with a lot of the goals that many non-first gen students might have in college, like they know what they want to do and they know how to balance things. They know they want to go to this company, once they leave and so forth. It's like, everyone wants some story for their life and for their time in college. And I'm the kind of person who wants a desire to know, to have my goals coming into college and the way I’m going to work on them, and so forth. And having not had any example from above, like no older siblings or parents that have been to colleges, I felt a little bit lost in some sense, like in terms of what I was there for, even though I didn't feel like I struggled necessarily with maybe academics.
Q: How did being a first-gen student affect your journey during undergrad?
A: One thing I knew going into university, or at least for the first two years of university, is I knew I wanted to do academia. I just found that very attractive, like the idea of pursuing science. Since I was five, I would read astronomy books, I just always knew how to do something related to science. But I definitely felt quite a big disconnect between being here and actually getting there, even though my aunt is actually a professor of computer science. Like, how much better can you get in terms of family advice for getting into CS academia. But she didn’t have relevant advice for finding how, like the norms around, seeking out research with these fancy faculties, in the best university in the region, and so forth. Some of the networking I definitely was maybe less preconditioned to be as effective as.
Q: What do you think is not talked about enough in the first gen community?
A: I was looking at past interviews you guys have done. I was worried for this one because again, I said, it's only now that I'm even thinking that “well, maybe I should really identify with the first-gen community”. So it's sort of tricky for me to analyze the discussion in it. I think, if we think of the meaning of “community” to be more broad, just like everyone in first-gen, not everyone who thinks about it a lot, I think somebody has already said this before in a past interview, but I think there is a lot of confusion, perhaps, for people like me who don't fall into a lot of underprivileged groups, but perhaps have been shaped and affected by a first-gen experience of sorts. It's sort of difficult to start thinking about it because whenever I used to think first-gen, I thought of somebody who had a harder life than me in a sense. But then I think it's probably still healthy to reflect and think about these things, even if it's not a major source of oppression in my life personally. I think it's good that you guys are doing these interviews then for that, but it's great to sort of promote that as the very versatile identity that it is. Some people, like me, their whole family have gotten degrees, but not from the US. And then others, maybe you've lived here for forever, but are the first to go to college. Those two seem like very different lifestyles to me. So it's a very umbrella term to me.
Q: How did you navigate getting into the CS major? How were you able to not lose motivation after the first application cycle?
A: In my case, this was a few years back, when the application system was a bit different. I was applying with my high school friends initially, when trying to go to UW and then I didn't get it, which didn't surprise me because my high school grades were... But then when I was here, the first time I was rejected was after just one quarter at UW, so they kind of told me, you need to spend more than a quarter here. So it was easy to stay motivated when that's the feedback you get as opposed to something else. I definitely tried focusing on extracurriculars. Actually, I was looking for internships, I remember, that year and… You know what looking for internships without a CS major as a first year would look like. So it was tough. I ended up finding a full time job. I filled out an application like 99% of the way and this was after 20 or 30 internship rejections. And then I realized it was full time and I was like, “wait, I can't do that, whatever I'll just hit send”. They spent so much time and they were the only ones to get back to me. So I ended up working full time in the summer and then cutting it into fall. It was crazy. It was very surreal because I didn't have my CS major yet. So I was trying to interview and negotiate for this full time software Dev position, while being like “UW please take me through your CS major, maybe?” It's just very surreal. That actually happened like a month before I did get the acceptance.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self, the first year you came into the Allen School?
A: The only story I found relating to that was trying to learn as much as I possibly could and be very ambitious. My advice would be to just chill out a little bit of it, honestly, when you're trying to find an identity for the school to you, you really want to succeed. And that’s the only example I had for myself, I guess, in computer science that a person who I was close to that actually got a degree and stuff was my aunt who had a PhD and was wildly successful, but never did it here. So the image I had was, it's possible to be wildly successful. Especially if you're in my family, apparently. But at the same time, I had no idea what I was really doing. So I was kind of just working on taking as many classes as I could, which by the way is probably not even the best for your learning or career advancement, or whatever it is you want to do. But I kind of just ended up maximizing my classes and feeling like I really needed to, you know, prove to myself in some sense that I was good enough to not just match but exceed other students. It's pretty common in CS, obviously, that attitude, but it was very unhealthy. For sure. I wish I had a more balanced outlook on how much I had to get done in my first year.
Q: What made you want to study Computer Science at the Allen School?
A: Yeah, so I've been coding since I was like, nine. I'm one of those kids. I started with the Russian Google, I googled how to create your own game when I was nine. I found some crappy tutorial, and I started learning from there. But actually I wasn't thinking I would do computer science as a major, it was fun, but it didn't seem impactful enough. When I really decided to do it was when I read a bunch of like, almost sci fi like, articles about AI and just like the potential you could have, that's when it really seemed like, it's not just something I'm good at, or at least reasonably good at where I was good at making little games. It wasn't something I'm decently good at and enjoy. It's something that could also have a huge impact on the lives of possibly billions. I mean, we don't know, but in the short term, lots and lots of people. So I guess that's when I knew I wanted to combine what I had been alright at with what seemed to be very impactful.
Q: What was the hardest decision you ever had to make during your time at the Allen School?
A: Dropping a class, but that's lame. It was really big for me. That was a difficult one for sure. But that was like at the peak of my, ‘I need to grind as much as I can’ phase. So I signed up, I think for AI, algos, ML, and like, one more class, and it was just like, “What was I thinking”. This is why my advice is to chill out. I definitely wasn't getting the most out of being in those classes, it was just like grinding on homework. But a different one, I would say was actually choosing to leave academia, because that's my plan at the moment. So that was another one that was, I guess it was sort of like making that change with regard to choosing not to overload yourself for a bit because that's a decision I struggled with my whole life. I was sure that I was going to pursue a PhD. and so forth. And even for the last year and a half, I've been working in research and that has been very overwhelming with lots of other schoolwork. But I was just never going to give up on that and so sort of reframing it in my mind is something that's not necessarily giving up, but just, you know, choosing to live in a different life for the time being was probably my biggest challenge within school. Because if you told me even six months ago that I would not pursue a Phd I would be like “What?!”. It's very possible I'd go back to it but just right now I want to live life. Letting go of that unhealthy sense that because I have been thinking of this over the last few days and it does connect to being first-gen in some sense, I think because I had no identity to fill going into university. I was just gonna grind my whole life. And it's taking the step to realize that actually, just because I had this weird life story of moving over and stuff, I can still just have a normal adulthood.
Q: You’re going to be graduating at the end of this academic year with a Bachelor’s and Master’s in CS, what’s the biggest factor that has helped you be so successful in your time here at the Allen School?
A: It's definitely some combination of just dread and then camaraderie from other students. So, it's easier to be grinding on your four classes that you're really starting to question having taken and so forth and feeling so overloaded when you're surrounded by like, five other people all studying the same book, that does make it more manageable. Which is why this year, maybe, is what pushed me away from PhD finally, because we're all at home. I'm just, I'm just out. But then the other side of it is definitely just, grit. I've had to do some challenging things before. And this was just another one, so I was just gonna keep pushing for as long as I could.
Q: Who would you say is your biggest inspiration for your drive?
A: I can't think of one inspiring figure for my productivity. Like I said, I've always been super interested in science. I've really just been sort of inspired by the pure idea of finding something new and like discovering, just fundamental truths about the universe, whether it's in something happening within a computer, or if it's natural science or so forth. So that's what always motivated me and like specific scientists would inspire me. Of course, people in my family like my grandpa, who's a physicist and is the smartest person I've ever met. I've just always really taken a liking to that pursuit of truth. I guess that's the main inspiration for me. And then there's lots of people who have inspired me along the way. I just can't pick one.
Q: What's your favorite song?
A: The one song that I've actually listened to the most doesn't have any lyrics, it’s “Time” by Hans Zimmer. It's from the Inception soundtrack. It's super weird. He's like the most famous movie soundtrack composer. He's composed for Inception, Interstellar and like 500 others and probably.