LesliE Ikeda

Q. Please introduce yourself and your role in the Allen School.

A. My name is Leslie Ikeda: I am one of the undergraduate academic advisors in the Allen School, I’m also a part of the Diversity and Access Team that is focusing on equity, inclusion, and access for students for underprivileged students interested in Computer Science. In summary, I focus on advising and student success and retention.

Q. What was your journey in being a part of the Allen School?

A. My journey was something that wasn’t clear. I didn’t have a clear vision as to where I saw myself in higher education and working as an educator. I was finishing my Master’s program at Seattle University, it was a Student Development and Administration program (it’s a great program by the way). I’m sure many students have felt this upon finishing the end of their program and they’re like, “What am I gonna do when I graduate?”. I had been working at Seattle U for a few years and before I had entered the program I was working in different capacities at the UW, and I sort of had my heart set on returning to the UW. There was one aspect there that I wanted to return to a place that I felt I had really struggled with. I really had a lot of academic challenges in my undergraduate experience. It wasn’t the most positive one, and when I started working there towards the very end of my undergraduate program, I felt like I found my community. I felt like I had a sense of purpose. So it almost felt like coming back to the UW was this feeling of redemption and re-envisioning my contributions, my role, and how I can really help students of a community I did not have a good time with as an undergraduate student. I wanted to be at the frontlines of connecting with students. So many things are changing in Seattle, tech companies are evolving and the decisions they make are great but also have a lot of implications that impact certain communities. Particularly communities that are historically marginalized or underserved so I thought, “Well, I’m one person, I can’t necessarily change a whole ecosystem that’s already really strong that needs structural change, but how can I be a part of that change?”. I’m connecting with students who are doing this incredible program, helping them develop, helping them connect how their courses can have an impact on the community they care about, I’m helping be a sounding board in how their navigating the power of their skills and talents, collaborating with different people that come from different experiences, helping students create the change that they want to see, and seeing how they navigate the ethical implications of technology. This was a way that I felt I could contribute and see every day how this program has provided opportunities, skills, knowledge for students to be able to do the things they want to do. Seeing my partner, who graduated from this program, be able to provide for his grandparents as a result of the program made me excited to apply to be an Allen School advisor.

Q. How did being a first-gen student affect your journey being an undergrad and what does that mean to you?

A. I was fortunate to have a family that supported me going through college. They were into the fact that this was my next step after high school. They knew that education was really important and a valuable tool for being able to have different experiences and getting the knowledge and skills that could build upon what I learned in high school. But they didn’t actually know the nuances between this vision/hope and actually getting someone there. So for me it was a lot of trying to figure out the unspoken rules of going to college. I didn’t have anyone telling me “this is the Reddit thread that you can look at to get some insider knowledge”, “this is how you sign up for courses and how you think about your course schedule”, or “oh my gosh there’s these activities/student organizations that are really popping that you should totally get involved in”. Nobody was telling me that was a thing. I think the other important piece is that I was working. I think the intersection of being first-generation and also having to finance my tuition was another component of my experience where a lot of my peers who I connected with at college were dorming, and had different priorities. My priority was making money to pay for school. I was working in restaurants, I was pulling doubles, I remember waking up for my 7am shift for brunch on a Sunday then working a double in the evening then closing at 9:30 and being out of the restaurant at 11, and the next day having to go to class. That was a touch part in trying to balance school. Here’s school that was already very hard, but then here’s working my butt off to actually finance my school. I also think another piece of being first-gen is that you feel really alone. You feel like nobody really understands the challenge that you’re experiencing. You feel really invisible. I felt for a long time that whether I stay or leave, no one would notice I’m not at the UW. It actually wasn’t until I got a registration hold on my account and started failing a lot of classes for multiple quarters to the point where I was put on academic probation that an advisor reached out and said “I would like to connect with you and talk about your current status at the UW”. That meeting seemed kind of small at the moment, but when I reflect back on it, that was the intervention I needed to stop spinning my wheels and take a hard look at what is making the situation really challenging. That was my first-gen experience, where I felt really alone. I felt a lot of Imposter Syndrome. I felt here I am surrounded by many of my other peers who understood what the story is and what they’re supposed to do. I wasn't getting the grades that my peers were getting and I thought it was because there was something wrong with me, when in reality there were a lot of other things that were complicating the situation. When you’re commuting to the class you go to class, you leave, you work, you go home. There isn't really anyone else that sees what you’re actually going through.

Q. What are some misconceptions about the first-gen community?

A. This is a great question! A misconception is that it doesn’t exist, as if we don’t have a first-gen community. A general misconception is that there aren’t that many first-gen students out there. It’s hard to know because it's not a visible experience or identity. Also I think it often feels like the first-gen community is talked about in a deficit lense and in a deficit perspective, when in reality there are a lot of gifts, talents, experiences, and skills that our first-generation students are offering and enriching in the learning environment, the college community, and society. Oftentimes this is missed. As an educator we are constantly trying to find ways to support students and fix the deficit in their academic success, but in doing so we miss the opportunity to celebrate the great achievement of being first-gen and the assets these students bring. That is something that’s important to me, making sure that is acknowledged.

Q. What inspired you to host the first first-gen day at the Allen School and what led you to wanting to be the advisor for our club?

A. I think there's a lot of things that are celebrated on a large scale across the country and I don’t think that celebrates the diverse experiences that also deserve to be valued. For me, this was a way for the UW and the Allen School to celebrate our first-generation community. I felt this was important to celebrate because I heard that students were feeling isolated, they were feeling that they were in a competitive program that cultivates a sense that they’re not attaning as much success as other people. For students that didn’t feel like their experience was being reflected in the Allen School, or the UW, or abroad, this was a way to make their experience visible and make it known that they are here and they are the first. They are doing something that their family has not done before, and that their family has not reached. It’s important to celebrate the fact that these students are trailblazers and paving a new way. Their previous generations have helped support them to this point, but now they are carrying the torch further. What attracted me to wanting to be the advisor for the first-gen club? I think it's the same as what made me want to host National First-Gen day and having the Allen School have these kinds of opportunities for students. I don't think that I can take credit for being an advisor to this club. To me, that's such a minimal role. In my vision, which is what makes this club so wonderful, is that GEN1 is student-led. It is with the intention of supporting first-gen students and being in solidarity with first-gen students, made by first-gen students. I was just excited that this was a new way that students can find community and solidarity within each other. I was fortunate to be able to be a small part of that. I was just happy that you all let me come aboard not the other way around.

Q. What do you hope to see in the future of the first-gen community in the Allen School and what can GEN1 provide in attaining this?

A. What I hope to see for the future of the first-gen community is that they pay it forward. My hope is that by paying it forward, that the next generation is continuing to pave the way and do something that nobody else has done in their family and their community. This has a powerful impact, it connects people and gets them inspired and breaks the bounds of what is possible. This pushes people to continue reaching and do things they once thought was impossible but now see that someone else with a similar experience has accomplished. I think GEN1 is really facilitating this growth and helping bring this community together in a way that feels like students have a sense of belonging, and valuing them and their experiences. GEN1 is bringing these students into the equation and into the larger conversation in the Allen School. GEN1 is making the invisible first-generation community visible.

Q. Do you have any advice for first-gen students both academically and in their personal lives?

A. A big advice that I have is to find your community, find your people. Even within the first-gen community, the experiences are not all the same. The intersections that the first-gen identity has with other salient identities that students have is complex. The first-gen community is diverse. You can find your community within the first-gen experience, but at certain points in your life you might need certain people to support your other identities. For first-gen students who are struggling, I think you want to be able to find a mentor and peers that you can speak freely to about what you are experiencing. You need to find a trusted resource and an outlet. Academically, as I mentioned earlier, there are these unspoken rules and “hacks” and community is one way to try and find these tips. Upperclassmen, alumni, and other peers I think are valuable connections for navigating these resources. Making connections is putting yourself out there and commiting to something that feels scary at the moment. There’s lots of resources at the UW, there’s lots of opportunities and things to do and oftentimes this can get overwhelming. If students can get connected with advisors or their peers, first-gen students can hone in and identify what is going to be the most beneficial resources for them.

Q. What advice would you give your younger self in undergrad?

A. I was a very insecure person. I still think I struggle with confidence and Imposter Syndrome. I don't think that's something that you can turn on and off. At some points in my life, this feeling was more intense than at other times. I was really struggling with this low confidence. If I could go back, I would tell myself that this shit is hard. It's not necessarily hard because you're doing something wrong. Certainly I could've done some things differently or made some different decisions, but overall it's okay to acknowledge that this is hard. You're not supposed to be this perfect being and do everything perfectly. This is not a walk in the park because the reality is that shit’s gonna happen all the time. For the people who say this is a walk in the park are not saying what's actually going on. I kept telling myself things were going to be fine, that I was gonna figure all of this out and everything would be fine. And I was cheating myself into thinking that I didn't need any help and that there was something wrong with me and if i could just fix myself then everything else would be perfect. But the reality is that people have certain connections, they have this social capital to have the networks to let them know whats up. They might have the financial capital to be able to take advantage of all these opportunities and not have to work. It's so much more complex than just saying “there’s something wrong with me”. My advice would be to (1) acknowledge when things are really hard and (2) when things are really hard it's okay to reach out for help and it's not a sign that you are incompetent or you are not enough. Seeking out help is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength.

Q. What is your favorite song?

A. This is a really hard question, I think this is harder than all of the other questions (that and introducing myself). I’m gonna say I Wanna Dance with Somebody by Whitney Houston because I’ve been listening to that radio a lot recently on Spotify. Everytime I hear a song from her, I have a physical reaction. She's a powerful singer with a great range that can evoke so much emotion. Sometimes it makes me sad listening to her music because she is missed.

Thank you Leslie for all the work you do to support first-gen students in the Allen School!

Interested in sharing your story with GEN1? Email us at gen1-officers@cs.washington.edu!