Q: Can you introduce yourself and your role in the Allen School?
A: Sure! My name is Shariya Ali, I’m a senior in the Computer Science major at the Allen School. I’ll be graduating this quarter, Spring 2020. I was also a transfer student so I attended my first two years at a community college and then transferred to the Allen School as a junior.
Q: What was your journey in coming to the Allen School like, specifically with being a transfer student to the school?
A: So I actually didn’t finish high school the traditional way, I got my GED when I was almost 23 and 8 months pregnant. While I was there, that’s when I really got introduced into Computer Science. I spent about a year just staying home with my son and getting to know my new role as being a mom. Then after that I enrolled in community college in Spokane and I started doing all the prerequisite classes, etc. When I really wanted to go to UW, I had come over to Seattle just for a vacation with my family and we saw the campus and the Allen School. I said, “This is where I need to go, I have to be here”. Until then, my plan was just to transfer to Eastern Washington University which was only a half hour from where I was living in Spokane. But it wasn’t my dream school. I had to make the UW happen. I started looking into the equivalent classes, and most of my classes were going to transfer but not all of them. For example, Programming I and II were not the same, and Calculus III was not the same. So I made a plan, I said “This is not going to make me fail, I’m not gonna just give up”. I found out that I could take the classes I needed at North Seattle College, another community college, but to do that and to get everything done on time so that I could apply for the quarter that I wanted I was going to have to dual enroll. I was going to both schools at the same time. I moved my family to the Lynnwood area, just north of Seattle, from Spokane. I went to classes in person at North Seattle College, taking my programming classes and calculus, and at the same time I was finishing my AA degree in Spokane Community College online. I did that for two quarters, about 6 months where I was going to both schools. It was kinda crazy but it all worked out. Then I had another 2 quarters left at North Seattle, but luckily I got into UW Seattle and UW Bothell so I was totally happy. I picked Seattle because that was my dream. I figured if anything happened that I could still go to Bothell and have a good education. Then I started in the Allen School in fall of 2018. It took a lot of hope, I had to just have faith in the process that everything was going to work out in the end. I was really scared because I wasn’t just changing my life but I was also changing my son’s life and my fiance’s life. We all had to move across the state and start over, we didn’t know anybody here. I had to look at it as “If we do this two things could happen: I could graduate and everything could go as planned and be amazing where our lives would change for the better and we would be able to live great lives forever, or I don’t get in and our lives stay the same”. If I had to move back to Spokane, we wouldn’t be any worse off, we would still be in the same position. So I’m not losing anything by trying. I felt like the potential reward really outweighed the risk, and that’s what helped me overcome the fear.
Q: How did being a first-gen student affect your journey during undergrad?
A: That’s a good question. I definitely had to rely on myself. I didn’t have family or friends that could guide me through the process, especially as a transfer student. I had to navigate financial aid, finding equivalent classes, graduation plans, everything like that. I had to do a lot of planning on my own. I had to make a plan and figure out every single step. So for me to take whatever classes I wanted to take within my 4-year plan, I had to plan “this is what I have to do now”. I really had to learn about things on my own and be willing to reach out for help. When we came over to visit UW, I wanted to know if I just had a wild and crazy dream or if I could actually go into the Allen School. I met with Chloe, the advisor, and another person that works in the main admissions office and I talked with them, showed them my transcripts, etc. I wanted to get as much information as I could, and that’s what really helped me to make the most informed decision. When people around me would say “Don’t get your hopes up,” or “This might not happen, don’t get too excited,” I would know in the back of my mind that I am making the right decision because I planned and made an informed decision. I did all the research I needed to do and I knew I wasn’t just going into it blindly.
Q: What do you think is not talked about enough in the first-gen community?
A: I think that we’re starting to talk about Imposter Syndrome more, which is good, but at the same time the struggles that first-gen students face are a lot different than the feelings of Imposter Syndrome that traditional students with parents that have gone to college face. It’s different, the challenges that we go through. I feel like we could talk about Imposter Syndrome and how it affects first-gen students just being in college, not even necessarily being in tech or at the Allen School. We talk a lot about Imposter Syndrome in tech as, “Oh I’m not as good at coding,” or “I didn’t get 5 interviews from Amazon, Google, etc.” which is great, I have those feelings too. But as a first-gen student I also have feelings of just being in this new environment. This difference could be talked about more, how there is a wider range of imposter feelings than we have started to talk about. We are still making good progress, however. At least this topic is being addressed. Hopefully in the future we will get better at addressing the variety of feelings that come with Imposter Syndrome.
Q: What does being first-gen mean to you?
A: It’s life changing, but it’s not just my life that’s being changed. It’s my legacy. It’s changing the whole trajectory of what my family’s lives will be, for my generation, my son’s future, and his kids’ futures. It’s really powerful. I’m going to be able to get a job and I’m going to be able to support my family. It’s also going to show my song that he will be able to do the same thing. It’s changing so many more lives just by me gaining an education.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self, the first year you came into the Allen School?
A: Don’t be afraid of sharing your story. It took me some time to get comfortable with it. At the beginning I was focusing on trying to fit in and trying to be like my peers. I realized really quickly that doing this was not going to work. People could tell that I was not being genuine. Now that I have shared my story with so many people, it’s only had a positive impact. It has not affected me negatively in any way. I would tell my younger self, “Own your story. Own it. This is your story, and there’s power in that.” You can let it be a negative if you want in that you’ve gone through all these struggles and that shows that you’re a weak person. But it doesn’t have to be like that. You can say that you went through these things but look where you are now. Use your story to your advantage. For example, I’ll be turning 30 in August, but because I’ve had a son and all these other challenges in my early twenties I have not had a job for a long time, add school and that’s another 4 years that I wasn’t working. If somebody in an interview asked me “Why did you have such a lengthy period between your jobs?” I could say, “I went through this and that,” or I can spin my story to show “The traits that you’re looking for in an employee, I exemplified those by overcoming the challenges that I did”. They will see that I’m determined, that I’m dedicated, and that I’m motivated. Own your story, don’t be afraid of it.
Q: What made you want to study Computer Science at the Allen School?
A: There were a couple things. When I was in elementary/middle school, I really enjoyed building small websites. I would teach myself HTML, which was popular back then in the late 90s/early 2000s. But back then there also wasn’t so much of a push for women in tech, so I never thought of it as something I could make a career out of. It wasn’t until I met my college counselor when I was getting my GED, when she re-introduced me to Computer Science. At that point, I had never heard of the term ‘STEM’, I didn’t know that it became a movement. Then I started looking into it and I realized, they want women in tech and people that are diverse. I learned that I could make Computer Science a career and that it pays well, so I could support my family, especially with having a son. With our world being more reliant on tech, not only was it a safe career where you could have financial independence, but I could also have something that was fulfilling and that I enjoyed. All around it was a wise decision.
Q: What do you hope to see in the future of the first-gen community in the Allen School?
A: I would just love to see it grow. Every time I read the story of another first-gen student, I’m reminded that I am not the only one that went through struggles to get here. We all have our own stories. My story is unique, but so is yours. We’ve all had journeys. We’ve all had challenges. For us getting to such an amazing place such as the Allen School is inspiration for other first-gen students. If we can have that diversity and variety of different people of first-gen, we can cover a lot more aspects of an underrepresented population in tech. We can show that no matter what your story is, you can also do this.
Q: How do you think GEN1 can help bring this change (in reference to prior question)?
A: By building awareness. Part of the problem is that we see the Allen School as this prestigious institution that is very competitive and hard to get in to, but if we have a group like GEN1 that’s out there and showing there is a community of first-gen students then that’s all it takes for students to feel like they also belong there. Even though we have had first-gen students attend the Allen School, having a club that’s just for them and being the face of first-gen students has so much power in just existing.
Q: What was the hardest decision you ever had to make during your time at the Allen School?
A: Deciding to move to Seattle because there was a lot of fear in that decision. A lot of times we let our fear dictate our decisions. I was comfortable in Spokane, we had a safe place to live and we had lived there for a few years at that point. Everything was fine. For us to have this idea of changing everything, getting up and just moving was scary. Especially when I didn’t know if I was going to get into the Allen School or not, I had not even finished my prerequisites that I needed just to apply. That was the hardest decision because I was not just changing my life, but my partner’s life and our son’s life. My son was going to have to find new friends. Everything was going to be new to them. I had the responsibility that I had to make this work. I felt like it was up to me at that point. But even though it was the hardest decision I had to make, it was also the best decision. Nothing that’s worth doing comes easy. It was an amazing process because it taught me that if you can just overcome your fear, you can do so much more. Your destiny is not just written, you change everything, but you have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and make that change. If you want your life to change, you have to change your life.
Q: What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be the success you are today?
A: I have to give a lot of credit to my family. My son was my biggest motivation. When he was born, I promised to myself that I was going to do everything in my power to give him the best life possible. He didn’t choose to have me as his parent, and his life is my responsibility. I wanted to give him everything. He keeps me going and wanting to do better and bigger things because I see how much that can affect him. At the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to do everything without my fiance and my mom. My mom actually passed away right before I transferred to the Allen School, which was unbelievable timing. It was so sudden, nobody could have known it was going to happen because she was healthy. She passed away a month before I started school at UW, but she was also still able to see that I got in. She was still alive when I found out I was accepted, so she was able to see that my life was going to be okay which was her biggest worry. She really helped us move over here emotionally, financially, etc. Anytime we needed her, she would always be there for us. And my fiance, he puts our son to bed every night so I can do homework. He cooks dinner and takes our son places when I need to do assignments. When school was in session he would take our son to school every morning and pick him up. He is like a full-time dad, and he doesn’t mind. He says “We’re doing this to benefit our whole family,” which shows how this journey had been a team effort.
Q: What’s your favorite song?
A: Right now I really like Congratulations by Post Malone because it feels so timely right now. It makes me feel good that we came up and how everyone is happy for us now but it wasn’t always that way. I’ve really been loving songs like that. They make me emotional, but it’s a good type of emotional.