Everyone Deserves a Seat at the Table: A College Student’s Journey to the TEDx Stage

Girls Who Code
Nov 8 · 7 min read

By: Caitlin Stanton, Girls Who Code Alum

March 16th, 2019, 12:03 AM EST

I enjoy killing time by refreshing my email and LinkedIn inbox (a little strange, I’m aware). Typically I’m only met with junk mail and spambots, but not this time.

“Hi Caitlin, I work with TEDxMontaVistaHighSchool, a licensed TEDx organization based at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California! … After looking at your strides in the field of computer science and advocacy for equality in STEM, we want you to give an official TEDx talk at our school; we want to hear your story about the reality you strive to create for girls and womxn in this field.”

I remember sitting there and staring at my computer, confused. It was one of those moments where I read the words and understood that the words were correctly formatted English sentences but I couldn’t understand the words, like the connection between my eyes and the rest of my brain had been cut.

Me, a TEDx speaker? I kept flashing back to high school when I didn’t even make the organizing team for our TEDx event, let alone was a speaker. I was (and still am) a confident individual, never hesitating to speak my mind and advocate for myself and others, but being giving a TED talk was one of those dreams that you have by default.

March 19th, 2019, 2:01 PM EST

The days following that initial message were fraught with indecision. On one hand, I was ecstatic to be given a platform (both physically and metaphorically) to share my story. On the other hand, however, I was a stressed college student in the middle of the spring semester of my junior year. I rarely go home to New York City for our four-day weekend breaks, let alone fly across the country on my own dime.

Knowing that time and money were the two factors that would keep me from going to Cupertino, I reached out to my school (specifically the College of Engineering at Cornell University) for funding.

“I’d love to share more about my story and my work as an advocate for diversity in STEM at this TEDx talk, but I don’t have the funds to fly to Cupertino. I’m emailing to ask if the College of Engineering would be willing to sponsor my travel/accommodations costs for this speaking engagement.”

I spoke with my parents, both of which were excited for this opportunity but wanted to make sure it wouldn’t stress me out with the preparation needed and time away from school. I asked around my friends, all of which were incredibly supportive and were willing to help me out with figuring out a topic, making slides, and practicing my speech.

Now all I needed to do was make an actual decision.

March 20th, 2019, 12:31 PM EST

Less than a day after my request, I received a perfectly-timed email from the College of Engineering confirming my sponsorship.

“I’m excited to say that I was able to secure funding from Cornell! I’ll be purchasing my tickets/accommodations once it’s confirmed, but I’ll definitely be a speaker for your TEDx event.”

After all of the conversations I had, I was convinced that going to Cupertino and getting on that TEDx was a step in the right direction for me and my career.

March 29th, 2019, 11:52 PM EST

In typical college student fashion, I left the most important task for last: planning my talk. I had been reached out to on the basis of redefining reality for womxn in technology, but what did that mean to me? What was important to me in my journey as a woman in tech? What was valuable to share with those whose shoes I’d been in not too long ago and their allies? What could I compress into an informational, lighthearted, and inspiring 15-minute segment on stage?

Eventually, with many hours spent watching previous TED talks on technology and diversity, I settled on an outline.

“For the past five years, Caitlin has been immersing herself in the world of technology. From courses and class projects to hackathons and internships, her love of building through circuits and code has led many of her friends to refer to her as “Coder Caitlin.” However, her journey into a world of hardware and software has been anything but linear. Her talk, Everyone Deserves a Seat at the Table: Opinions from a #WomanInTech, will center on her experiences as a woman in tech and life lessons she’s learned along the way.”

April 12th, 2019, 12:46 AM EST

Even more in line with expected college student behavior, I started and finished the slides for my presentation six hours before the first of my three flights to Cupertino. I had my Physics Waves prelim earlier that night and had put off my TEDx talk until I walked out of the exam room at 10:30 PM.

Two of my close friends in my major sat with me in an empty classroom and brainstormed. We had the skeleton of what I wanted to talk about — an overview of the history of women in tech, an introduction into myself, and a series of lessons I’ve learned in my (albeit very short) career; all we needed to do was give it a body to work with.

Of course, that meant spending around 45 minutes picking out the perfect slide template.

The opening slide of my presentation

Jokes aside, I am incredibly grateful for the two women I had by my side during that process, looking over every bullet point and statistic and speaking point. Thank you Orby and Priya for giving me that support, even if it meant staying up until 2:30 in the morning.

April 12, 2019, 3:15 PM PST

Three flights later (Ithaca is really in the middle of nowhere, so I have never taken a direct flight to anywhere farther than Philadelphia), I found myself sitting outside of Monta Vista High School. I had been on airplanes since 6 AM, sleeping through takeoff and landing for the first two and nervously practicing my talk under my breath on the third. It was bizarre that I would only be spending eight hours in California — staying for the entirety of the TEDx event, grabbing dinner, and hopping on a flight (only two flights this time!) back to school.

The next 45 minutes were a blur of introductions and technical setup. I met the three other speakers, all of whom were very successful and established adults: Emmy nominated, award-winning filmmaker Sylvie Rokab; Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur and writer Sunil Rajaraman; and the first U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil.

Being only 20 years old at the time, I felt like a high schooler. I immediately started to doubt myself and felt my hands, which already have poor circulation, getting cold and sweaty. As I sat through the first two speakers, I tried to keep my mind as clear as possible. I was running on fumes and felt very out of place, but I had been invited for a reason. I had a story to tell, and I wasn’t going to let me nerves get the best of me.

Caitlin Stanton full-on presenting, definitely mid-sentence

April 12th, 2019, 6:23 PM PST

I had done it! I had given my first (and hopefully not my last) TEDx talk!

During the 16 minutes and 35 seconds that I stood on stage, I gripped the microphone so tightly that my hand was cramping long after I passed it back to the emcee. In the first few moments, I felt my voice falter but was immediately encouraged by the audience, whose positive sentiment towards me and the other speakers was palpable.

Though I was partially blinded by the stage lights, I looked around the room to make eye contact and humanize the faces I was talking to. I made the stage into my living room and paced comfortably around the circular red rug placed in the center. I missed some of my cues but I kept the pace going because, after all, the audience had no idea what I had been planning to say.

When I walked off the stage to the sound of applause, I knew I did well. That feeling was reinforced afterward when students asked about my experiences, parents wanted advice for their children, and the few people I knew in the crowd spoke to me with bubbling enthusiasm.

Caitlin with the TEDxMontaVista organizer who reached out to me

It’s been a little over half a year since I spoke at TEDxMontaVista, but it’s something that I’ve kept in the back of my mind since then. Something that terrified me so much ended up being an extreme boost to my confidence, and now I only want to dive into that world even more. I am thoroughly grateful to everyone who believed in me, from the TEDx organizers to my friends and family, because I gave that talk, but I wasn’t alone on that stage.

Caitlin Stanton is an alum of the Girls Who Code‘s Summer Immersion Program in 2014 hosted by Goldman Sachs. She is studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University where she is the Cornell’s Girls Who Code College Loops president, president of Alpha Omega Epsilon Engineering Sorority and vice president of Women in Computing at Cornell.

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