For those who were unable to attend the 5th Annual Washington STEM Summit on November 29th, we had such wonderful speakers who were incredibly inspiring. One such speaker was, Apars Walia is a freshman at the University of Washington studying Computer Science and Engineering. As a high school student, she was actively involved with Washington MESA at Highline College. Programs like MESA provided her with a supportive community and ignited her passion for STEM. MESA also inspired her to one day provide the same support to other students. She is enthusiastic about exploring how technology can facilitate opportunities for global education and social connectivity.
Apars honored us with such an incredible speech at the summit and we are also fortunate that she has allowed us to share her speech with everyone!
Apars Walia’s Speech from the Washington STEM Summit:
“What” and “if”. When used separately these two words are harmless and inconsequential. But, as soon as you put them together, these two words have the power to make you question everything you have ever done. “What if…?” I have asked this question to myself too many times to count. However, one aspect of my life that never warranted this question was my decision to pursue a college education.
I was born in suburban India, but the lack of adequate educational resources affected every aspect of my childhood. This motivated my parents to relocate our family of four to the United States. Six years ago, I first stepped into an American classroom. I still remember the stark differences I witnessed that day, from the quality of education to the numerous opportunities presented to us. Perhaps the biggest factor in me pursuing a STEM education was the fact that I had teachers who encouraged me to grow beyond the classroom. From participating in clubs to competing in national events, I had the opportunity to experience a revolutionary educational system.
As I entered high school, however, I started to notice a decline in the variety of courses available to students. So, I decided to dual-enroll at Highline College and completed college courses in lieu of my high school requirements. This was all thanks to the Running Start program, allows students in their junior year of high school to enroll in a local college and graduate with both a high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree by the end of their senior years.
When I enrolled at Highline College, I decided that I wanted to pursue a field that would eliminate the difficulties I had in my childhood. My experiences motived me to study computer science in order to work towards my goal of playing a part in alleviating the ‘digital divide’ in underprivileged areas of the world. However, attaining this degree would prove to be much harder than I had anticipated.
On the first day of my Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming class, I was surrounded by people who were much more experienced than I was. These were people who had already worked in the field, but wanted to simply sharpen their skills. Here I was, a sixteen-year-old girl, surrounded by professionals, wondering what on earth I had done. I was paralyzed by my inexperience. I felt alone in my struggles and did not know where I could seek help. But, towards the middle of the quarter, my teacher introduced us to a program called MESA. MESA truly changed the course of my education. By the end of the quarter, I became an Academic Excellence Workshop Facilitator for MESA. I created worksheets for students and led weekly group workshops where I guided students through challenging material. MESA provided me with a community of like-minded peers who supported me through numerous difficult times over the course of two years. The program and its amazing advisors pushed me to do things I thought I was incapable of doing.
MESA stands for Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA). Washington MESA helps under-represented community college students excel in their fields by providing academic and professional support. MESA also has a program for K-12 students to help them be competitive applicants for colleges. It boasts a diverse pool of members and serves students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, including African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Pacific Islanders and women. Most of these students are the first in their families to attend college or are low-income. The program helps its students persist through college and transfer to four-year colleges. MESA provides life-changing experiences for students to develop their skills, succeed in college, and experience fulfilling STEM-based careers.
I am now a student at the University of Washington. I was honored to be admitted as a freshman into their Computer Science department. I fully comprehend just how fortunate I am to be receiving an education. I don’t want to take it for granted, or worse, trivialize how privileged I am to have all these support systems around me. After my undergraduate education at the University of Washington, I plan to pursue a graduate education, with the hopes of eventually joining a company with the mission of creating accessible technology that connects us all.
Today I ask myself, “What if I had not found MESA? Would I be here today?”. And I don’t know the answer to that question. But what matters is that programs like MESA exist. It sounds very cliché, but these programs are crucial for all students. The most common reasons for students dropping out of college include poverty, negative peer influences or low attendance. MESA helps lessen the effect of these disadvantages and creates a wider, deeper talent pool that taps the potential of our diverse population. It opens doors to good jobs and a higher standard of living.
Ever since my first computer science class in high school, I have not ceased to be fascinated with the possibilities of innovation. With each day, my passion for computer science grows and I continue to receive inspiration for my intended work with the development of each new form of global technology. I thank programs like MESA for helping me make my dreams a reality.
As instrumental as Washington MESA has been to me and my education, they couldn’t have done it alone without the support of the people in this room and organizations like Washington STEM, and the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges. Both organizations have worked tirelessly to keep funding for the MESA community college program and to expand the MESA program to more community college programs across the state. I’m thankful for all of you being here today to champion a STEM education for more young people like me, and thank you Washington STEM for organizing this summit.