Finding Hope Through Tech

A difficult life leads to a passion for coding — and helping others tell their most difficult stories.

My name is Julia Nguyen. I was born and raised in the multicultural metropolis of Toronto, and I grew up in a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant family. My parents escaped war-torn Vietnam in the early ‘80s and lived across Europe for a decade. But the adversities that kept them hopeful for a better life weren’t strong enough to keep them together.

My mother, who didn’t get an opportunity to pursue a post-secondary education, worked several jobs to get my father through school. His mechanical engineering degree from the Czech Republic couldn’t get him employed, so he pursued an additional degree in computer science. I was born in this chaotic transition period. My parents were pressured to send money back to Vietnam and bring over relatives. They battled mental illness in silence. My father also battled alcoholism, loudly. He came and left repeatedly, until he left permanently. I grew up with no male role models. Single mothers often get called super-moms. My mother is that and so much more. I always cry thinking about how much she did for us and how much I hurt her in the process.

She single-handedly raised three children on her own. She fought for services for my autistic brother. She drove my sister and I to every music and swimming lesson. She encouraged us to draw, paint, and sculpt. She did the best she could to deal with my chaotic teenage years, which were plagued with mental illness crises and different forms of abuse. I struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, self-harm, and medication abuse.

Web design was a distraction from the difficult moments. I taught myself HTML, CSS, and JavaScript after playing on Neopets, a virtual pet site, in the third grade. The first program I wrote was a random pet name generator! It was an array with pre-populated names that I had scrounged from Google searches like “synonyms for despair.”

Players are able to customize their user and pet profiles, and guilds (which are clubs). As a got older, I focused more on designing profiles and guild pages and less on earning Neopoints. (I ran various Neopoint-earning scams, but that’s another story!)

Like many people, I went through an angsty phase. I like to call it my pseudo-goth, quasi-emo phase. My guilds revolved around the alternative music I desperately tried to relate to at the time. My early guild pages had basic designs — images edited using MS Paint between blocks of text and links. After discovering Photoshop (illegally of course!), the layouts evolved into horribly blinded and over-saturated images of musicians underneath transparent text boxes.

Web design has its limits on Neopets however. You can’t have links to websites external to Neopets and there are size limits on code and images. As a result, I decided to dip my feet into the vast unknown of the Internet. I jumped back and forth between free hosting websites like Tripod, Angelfire, and Freewebs. I even made MySpace and LiveJournal themes.

I devoted most of my time to maintaining my Evanescence fan site. As a pianist studying classical music who enjoyed reading and writing poetry, their melancholic anthems spoke to me. I made fan art in the form of sketches, paintings, and eye-gouging Photoshop blends.

As my skills evolved and my interests expanded beyond Evanescence, I became increasingly interested in creating web design resources. I was part of a movement of teenage girls creating and sharing Photoshop brushes, patterns, and textures, heavily retouched celebrity images, and fonts (either redistributed or painfully illegible). There was also a blogging element. We would blog about our mundane lives, share music playlists, and review each others websites as if we were experts. We used blogging platforms like CuteNews and FanUpdate, all of which filled with massive security holes.

I was completely subsumed in that world. You could befriend webmasters and become affiliates (called “affies” for short). It was essentially a social contract to read each others blogs and post encouraging comments. It was a social network where the creator was also the user.

At some point, I stumbled upon PHP and started creating WordPress themes and plugins. I was even a freelance web developer for family friends and helped to manage a domain selling business.

On the topic of domain names, they were status symbols in the world of teenage web design. Some of the more “affluent” webmasters would buy up cute-sounding names and throw contests for people to win them. It was all a ploy to get more hits and blog comments. We also sold banner ads on our sites and tried to earn money (didn’t amount to much) using Google AdSense.

Despite knowing how to program, I was led to believe by my high school peers who were able to take computer science classes that my interests were just web design and nothing more.

So why didn’t I take computer science classes? Despite struggling with mental illness, attending therapy frequently, and being hospitalized in high school, I added more to my plate by doing the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. It’s basically an enrichment program for overachievers (ahem keeners) who want to go to top universities. On top of that, I was in the gifted program and won in various math and engineering competitions like Destination Imagination and Engineering Idol with my sister. In other words, I had no life whatsoever. The IB program at my school didn’t actually offer computer science.

markUP was a PHP app that won multiple awards at the University of Toronto High School Science Fair

Although I was familiar with the term computer science because of my father, he was never part of my learning process. I remember reading the old programming books he left behind and feeling overwhelmed. In the 8th grade, I attended Gr8 Designs For Gr8 Girls, a CS outreach workshop at the University of Toronto. We created animations using Alice, an educational programming language. That workshop made me realize I wanted to code for the rest of my life. With a group of female classmates, we created a feminism website for ThinkQuest, an education website competition.

In high school, my interests moved in a different direction. I wanted to find a perfect balance between my passion for fine arts and music, and the math and sciences. As a result, I thought architecture or industrial engineering would be a better fit for me. My mother and sister supported my interests in computer science. It’s silly, but a part of me didn’t want to pursue it because I resented my father. At the end of the day, I ended up in a computer science program.

I thought I would be set for university because of my prior programming experience. Computer science isn’t just programming though. It’s an entire academic study of computing and the theory behind it. At the University of Waterloo, there’s a strong emphasis on mathematics. Even though math came easy to me in the past, university level math was different. It was more than computation; it required more deductive reasoning and writing proofs. I also took an advanced computer science course, which taught functional programming at an accelerated rate. Failing many of my first-year courses (including that one) set a negative tone to my formal computer science education. Experiencing sexism, harassment, and misogyny from male classmates has also tainted it. It has made me feel insecure about my femininity, technical abilities, and my activism.

I’ve been fortunate to be in a co-op school, which allows me to complete internships between my study terms. I’ve written exhaustively on how the competitiveness of the co-op program damaged my self-esteem.

Being at a top tech school, I felt a lot of pressure to be entrepreneurial and get involved with start ups. As a result, I worked as a freelance developer for multiple startups during a few of my study terms. This was a horrible idea on top of juggling mental illness, helping to lead campus clubs, and taking a full course load. There’s an implicit, often explicit pressure for women to “have it all” and it’s more acute in fields that lack them.

Once I realized this, I focused my attention on finding a “passion project” I could explore my identity with. The idea of if me, an open-source community for mental health experiences, developed after “coming out” with my mental illness to friends and classmates. I first spoke publicly about it at a lightning talks event at the ThoughtWorks Toronto office in early 2014. I came out because I grew tired of maintaining a perfect persona and constantly hiding my failures and struggles. Through if me, I hope to help others communicate their mental health stories to their loved ones. Hopefully somewhere in the future, if me can be a non-profit organization that educates and empowers people to be open about their mental illness.

Being a part of the Women in Computer Science Committee (WiCS) at my school has helped to improve my self-esteem. We organize mentorship initiatives, talks, and workshops for women in computing. Previously a one-on-one mentorship program, I reformatted Big CSters (pronounced “sisters”) as a series of small discussion circles centered on self-esteem, identity, and empowerment.

Most importantly, WiCS forges long-lasting friendships and a supportive environment for women to confide in one another. The women in this community have helped me through rough times in my life, including a suicide attempt.

Just a few of my favourite people!

I’ve had the wonderful privilege of interviewing a few of them and sharing their incredible stories. Storytelling is an important part of who I am. Being able to open up and encourage others to do so by reflecting on their vulnerable experiences is part of empathy.

It’s also important to reflect on the wonderful experiences and be grateful for your life. I’m 22 years old and I have spoken at tech conferences, published articles, led an open-source project, and interned at amazing organizations including Expedia, Minted, ThoughtWorks, Communitech, and Workopolis. This is merely a portion of my ongoing story. Tech doesn’t encapsulate my identity either. I love to draw, paint, swim, sing, play piano, and squeal over dogs! I hope to tell more stories and be a part of many others. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is: advocating for yourself is just as important as advocating for others.

Photo via Unsplash.

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