A thank you letter to UW CSE
a story about politics, opportunity, upward socioeconomic mobility and the American Dream
I’ll start by providing some context, if you feel this is TL;DR just scroll towards the next section break.
This story is about a teenager who just badly wants to study computer science at a university that cannot afford to teach computer science to every interested student.
This story is also about politics, opportunity, upward socioeconomic mobility, funding for education and one first-generation immigrant’s attempt to realize the American Dream.
Unfortunately, it is also a cautionary tale of how a simple goal might have easily slipped away from the individual chasing it.
In 2010, I was a Google software engineer working at its YouTube division. YouTube at the time, in my opinion, was the marquee acquisition of Google. I was very proud to work at a place that is a household name to my peers, and I felt a good amount of glee just knowing that I got to work with and learn from some of the most entrepreneurial and smartest people in Silicon Valley.
At Google, these were the days before the Nexus phones, nascent Android was not at all the juggernaut that it is today. By my account, YouTube was the sexy project at Google. As most Silicon Valley tech employees would testify, working at the G is a pretty sweet gig — pays well, feeds well, and the company pretty much picks you up and drops you off in a royal chariot. All of this during a time when the rest of the country was still suffering from the Great Recession.
Almost two years into the job, I was learning a lot and having fun. I felt a sense of professional and financial security probably for the first time in my young career. This sense of accomplishment means a lot to me as you’ll hopefully understand when you finally get to the email.
That summer, during one sleepless night in San Francisco (unaided by drugs or alcohol I might add), a sense of extreme gratitude and relief suddenly just washed over me: I am really, really blessed (or at least very lucky). I realized that my general well being and financially secure state of my life at that point mostly depended on one very fateful decision some six years prior — the UW CSE admissions office deciding that my application would be accepted for one of the highly coveted undergraduate slots in the CS department. How the story of my life would have pivoted in the absence of that minor victory, I don’t want to read that script.
Entering college, I knew I wanted to study computer science, I didn’t have some Plan B like “Physics, I think I’d be happy with Physics”. If I hadn’t gotten accepted, I would have been just completely devastated. You see, at UW, due to staff, facility and budget constraints, the department could admit only so many students per cycle, a class size that is very small relative to the amount of students who apply. Because of enrollment scarcity, the opportunity to study computer science was anything but certain for aspiring freshmen and sophomores. For many, achieving a high overall 3.x GPA was not sufficient to gain acceptance — because the applicant pool is just that competitive.
I accepted that the CSE admissions game was a game of inches — if you did poorly on one exam in a critical pre-req course, knocking off a few GPA decimals, the game might just be over (as dramatic of an academic failure could be for one particular nineteen year old). I envied and sometimes resented the freshmen who were directly admitted into the department and were not subjected to the sad and rigorous process of figuratively begging to study the thing you wanted so badly to study.
If I hadn’t been accepted, I probably would have chosen an alternative engineering major, or transferred to another university in order to pursue the same major. Simply put, failure at that juncture would have caused cascading academic and career adjustments, and I might just pick up an inferiority complex along the way that would go on to sabotage my confidence for years to come.
So, that night in July 2010, feeling blessed that I had caught a lucky break, I sent a long email to Ed Lazowska, one of the most friendly, approachable and influential CS professors I had the pleasure of studying under.
For the last four years, I hesitated to openly publish this, because it feels very personal. Typically, on personal matters I always lean towards not over-sharing, but I think enough time has passed that I now feel a good amount of distance from this writing. Every time I’ve shared this letter privately with friends and colleagues, they have encouraged me to publish it, so I hope you will enjoy the read and leave with a sudden urge to support a great public university.
and finally, the email:
Recently, I read your How budget cuts short-changed the UW article. In the article, you were quoted:
“The principal role of great public universities is to provide socioeconomic upward mobility to the citizens of their states”.
For several days after reading that, I couldn’t help but think about my own story and reflect on how blessed I am to have had access to my UW CSE education. Five years after graduation, I am now fully appreciating the amazing value of the education I received, and I want to sincerely thank you and all the educators who work to achieve this mission.
I grew up in an immigrant family where my mother worked as a restaurant cook, seamstress, child caretaker, and currently still works as a nightshift office janitor. My father, not able to leverage his Chinese literary education to find a well paying job here, has spent his 17 years in America as an manufacturing worker. Neither of my parents has ever held a job that paid more than $13/hour, and they will never see an opportunity for promotion into management. Under these economic circumstances, I did not grow up with music lessons, summer camps, or private SAT tutoring.
Many of my UW friends grew up with parents with business and engineering pedigrees and/or local Microsoft, Boeing resumes. I’ve often imagined how much I would have enjoyed access to such accrued intellectual capital, early / frequent exposure to technology, and guidance to navigate the world of academia and workplace. I believe these advantages are consequential and the cumulative effect on a child’s likelihood for success over his/her lifetime cannot be understated.
Yet, with hard work in school, combined with the privilege to have been accepted into UW CSE, I was able to compete for one the most rewarding careers this country can offer. In a span of five short years in the tech industry, I find myself on a solid trajectory into the American middle class, and all without the baggage of student loan debt. In the midst of this great recession of our times, I am fortunate to have a job that puts me at a desk 10 feet away from the YouTube founder’s office.
Though I may never personally achieve the much-coveted meteoric success in this field, the cumulative effect of my education and career will already have had lasting effects on my family and future children’s welfare. If I were ever lucky enough to become as successful as I hope to be, being admitted into CSE would have undoubtedly been my lucky break and tipping point, so it’s my hope that in the future, UW can count on me to support CSE and contribute back to the community.
I am sure I am just one of many students who came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, so I’m extremely saddened to read that the past decade’s enrollment increases have had to be rolled back. Every eligible student not admitted is a life and family not significantly changed or improved.
I know you must be busy, so please do pardon this long email. It’s simply my hope that you’ll find encouragement and support in my message as you and all of UW CSE continue to fulfill the mission of our great public university.
Class of ’05