summer 2018: retrospection in motion
I am sitting on a plane to Colorado as I write this post. This is a plane that has departed after a long day of crying and saying goodbyes, after the most amazing three weeks of my life, after the last summer of my college career. Summer of 2018 has come and gone, coursing and meandering in a way that only comes after you've truly opened yourself to the experience of life. As I am typing this, my heart is unbearably heavy, because it is filled with gratitude, and love, and light, and wonder.
As a college student I have been told by nearly everyone that the internship I end up doing for the summer of my Junior year will pretty much determine the direction of my career. The natural assumption is that I would finally stop pursuing my beloved barely-above-minimum-wage research gigs and finally apply for an internship at a big tech company. It's time to get real now, Tammy. Time to start thinking about the future, your future. Of course, as you may have guessed, I did not follow this piece of well-meaning advice.
Instead, I eventually took a position as a coordinator for AI4ALL, a national nonprofit started by FeiFei Li and Olga Russakovsky at Stanford and Princeton respectively, which aims to increase diversity in the field of Artificial Intelligence through the education of underrepresented minorities. Desperate to obtain a research position with Professor Saenko, the lead for this initiative at my school, I applied. I had no idea how much I would be affected by the program, by the experience of teaching a subject I truly loved, but more importantly, by the people who have completely re-defined how I view the process of learning and research.
For three weeks, I and three other college students taught 25 high school girls the fundamentals of AI and Machine Learning, an ambitious task for which both my colleagues and students rose to the challenge in the most spectacular of ways. There is nothing more inspiring than watching a group of smart, curious young girls completely galvanized by the idea of programming their way to a better future. Watch a shy 16 year old transform into her truest, quirkiest self because of her trust in you and her trust in herself, and you will never be the same again. Every time I looked out at their faces, I remembered exactly how it was to be 16: soft, directionless, and full of hope. In many ways I still feel 16. I still feel eternally young, perpetually confused because somehow I was chosen to appear in a world that seemed impossibly big. An interesting phenomenon that happens, however, is that the size of the world appears to shrink proportionally every time you make a genuine connection with someone else.
I don't remember exactly when, but at some point this program became something so much more than just learning about programming and AI. It became about the people and the community you could build when you put a bunch of people who shared the same passions and interests together. (I have a sneaking suspicion that this may have something to do with the fact that we were all girls.) The true moments of learning happened in lunchtime conversations, in playing silly little games to pass the time, in the seconds and minutes spent laboring over a piece of code together. You never feel it when it happens, but it's only when it's ending that you're hit with the force of a freight truck of how much the people with whom you have been spending almost 40 hours a week truly mean to you.
This is a post dedicated to all of the girls who have inspired me. Thank you for showing me through all the hard work you have put into understanding a topic that might have seemed faraway and obscure, for your incredible kindness that encompasses everyone around you, for reminding me in just your existence alone that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us all.
When somebody tells you that you have changed their lives, you will never look at yourself the same way again. Perhaps I needed this more than I realized (also probably why I cried more than I thought I would). I often compare life to calling into the void and waiting for some sort of an echo back. Today, and every day in the past three weeks, I have heard a call back. Perhaps we all need to be reminded that the stones we cast into the wild will eventually cause a ripple. It may be small, but it is absolutely, unequivocally and defiantly there.
Naturally, given the sappy and sentimental nature of this post, you can surmise that the goodbye was tearful and drawn out. Today was a day suffused with emotion, of gratitude on both ends, and also of reluctance to part from the friends who have become so dear in such a short amount of time. This is not goodbye forever, my friends, not by a long shot and I have never been more excited for the future.
In the end, what I would like to leave behind, is something that my Zen teacher told me earlier this week:
In order to save others, you must open yourself to having the others save you first.
So thank you, thank you for saving me.