Q: Can you introduce yourself and your role in the Allen School?
A: My name is Ardi Madadi and I am an undergraduate student and undergraduate researcher at Paul G. Allen. I am technically an in-state student but I’m a transfer student and only recently came to the US in 2016. So that means that even though I’m not technically an international student, I can still understand some of the cultural challenges of some of the students that come in from outside.
Q: What were some of your adversities like coming to the Allen School, specifically with being not just an international student but a refugee as well?
A: I would say that generally my experience has been that it’s an all-inclusive environment. I heard a lot of negative things about how competitive it is and how nobody would help you as a student but that hasn’t been the case. I only have one person I don’t get along with, or rather they don’t get along with me, but other than that it’s been great. I can’t talk about the challenges being cultural, it’s more about understanding how the department works. So if you come in as a transfer student, you haven’t had the time to learn how things work together. You have to just learn in the year you come in as opposed to a Direct Admit. Advisors are really helpful. I really love working with Chloe, it’s kind of sad that she changed roles this year. Before I transferred, I met with her once one year in advance so that I could align my plans and she was fantastic. She told me what I should be doing, and I did that to a T, and I got in. For example, if you want to get involved in education then you need to do the graduate level seminar. It was questions like that. You just got to ask and somebody will point you in the right direction. But I have not had as much time as the Direct Admits had to get familiarized with the environment.
Q: How did being a first-gen student affect your journey during undergrad?
A: When you are a first-gen student, you don’t necessarily have the family support of people who have gone through the same path. Often you have to figure things out on your own, since your support system looks different. I know some first-gen students have valid and serious problems, but I think that I had a good support system that I was able to build. I didn’t feel the void that most other first-gen students feel. But I have been very lucky. I have been very lucky to have a partner that supports what I want to do. I have been very lucky to be able to find other students who are first-gen or come from families that are either underrepresented or have low-income, and being able to bond over our problems together.
Q: What do you think is not talked about enough in the first gen community?
A: I think most students don’t even think that some of the struggles they have might be due to that lack of support or lack of knowledge from not being in a family that has done this before. And most of them that got here had drive so they don’t even want to blame it on being a first-gen student. But I think if they were told “Hey we know you’re a first-gen student and if you struggle with not knowing certain things or not having a parent that can support you by having this experience, it’s okay”. I don’t think we explicitly say that enough. In the large picture it may not even matter because students who come in have a lot of grit in CS. I got a pin on my first day of orientation, it wasn’t given to me by the department, it was given to me by the school. It said “First-Gen”. But when you do your CS orientation, they don’t really talk about being first-gen in CS.
Q: What does being first gen mean to you?
A: To me it’s realizing the dreams that my parents had and couldn't realize themselves. I also want to not only break the cycle for myself and my other generations that come after me, but also for other families. College is not for everybody, but if it is for you and you aren’t given the opportunity, then it is a tragedy. I feel compelled to get involved in some way in helping people get there. I try to help people who are underrepresented become college students. I volunteered last year with Girls Who Code just for this, because this is something that was important to me. At a subliminal level, I feel that this is a specific thing that is not right that we need to correct and what compels me to help is the need for first-gen in CS rather than “I was a first-gen student so I feel like I have a duty to help other first-gen students”.
Q: Coming from 3 very different backgrounds of Swiss, Persian, and now American, how has it been like at the Allen School being at the intersection of 3 different cultures?
A: I was born in Switzerland, then I was raised in Switzerland, Iran, and Turkey, and now I’m in the US. It’s fun because I would be sitting in the commons and my Afghan friends walk in and I start talking to them, then I turn around and my friend who speaks German walks in and we speak a little German. And then my Turkish friend comes in and we speak Turkish. It’s just so fulfilling because it opens so many different doors both culturally and how you get the diversity of minds in the program. I guess some people are more inclined to work with others from their own culture, just because it’s a safe zone. But because I’m a third-culture kid, I can just go invisibly through the walls and step in every different culture. It also transcends the cultures I’ve been a part of. For example, once you go through the second culture of your life, you gain that status of being an outsider, but you’re also an insider at the same time. It’s funny because I feel like I’m an honorary resident of all these groups but I don’t really belong to any of them at the same time. Not that they don’t make me feel belonged, but my identity is a very unique identity that helps me be a part of every group but not be exclusive to any specific culture.
Q: What made you want to study Computer Science at the Allen School?
A: When I was coming to the US as a refugee, I knew that I was going to come to the state of Washington. I just looked up the best schools around this area and other opportunities. I already was interested in Computer Science. I remember I was on the plane and I had access to the Internet, and I looked up two things in particular on my way to the US: (1) a place that was good enough to work and allow you to work and study, (2) the best school for Computer Science. Even though I didn’t have a high school diploma, I knew I wanted to come to this school and make it big. Everything I saw was saying good things about the Allen School.
Q: What do you hope to see in the future of the first gen community in the Allen School and GEN1?
A: We ought to provide an ongoing resource for first-gen students. It would at least mean that they have one more resource so they have a specific need of theirs, be it financial or emotional, better helped. You may be behind in certain ways but there’s this specific resource that’s designed to get you on level with others and give you equity. I think the GEN1 club can help with that. I think every student that comes in should get a small pamphlet that tells you for what reasons you can go to GEN1, and also design a seminar paired with orientation or available at a certain time before the school year starts. You can also hold office hours for first-gen students or have these students email you, for example.
Q: Congratulations on the research position at the PLSE lab (by the way), was research something you always wanted to pursue when you were younger?
A: There’s this thing in the Persian culture that the idea of expanding knowledge is revered. That is integrated in me in a way that I don’t even realize. I always wanted to do something that no one else has done. Not because I want to go around and say, “I did this research”, but because of the thrill of being able to be like the first person who walked on the moon. This is the first thing that I can do that no one else has touched, if I can do it successfully. Also I want something meaningful to come out of my studies. I could have just taken the classes to learn, but this is really teaching me new things about programming languages. You’re constantly having to up your game. When you’re talking to a professor, and you start saying something that your undergrad professor might be fine with, but as you start deviating and saying something nonsensical, they immediately are not buying it. They say, “either tell me the unknown or start telling me something that’s correct”. It’s like every week you’re doing a job interview. It’s not horrible, the people are nice, and there has definitely been a lot of growth.
Q: What's your favorite song?
A: Uh oh, people will judge me for this. It changes from day to day. It’s Diamond Eyes by ShineDown. It’s hard rock, it’s been around for only a decade. Basically Sylvester Stallone called up this band and said “I’m making Expendables, could you make me a song?”. It’s about the cool guy who’s seen a lot, but who’s still fighting. Whenever I need to get pumped and I feel like a lot of adversity is against me, I put that song on and I’m like “I’m gonna do this!”.