Saturday, October 24, 2015

Airplane Musings and Kind Strangers

I wrote most of these notes in a journal on the airplane on the way back from the Grace Hopper conference in Houston (please note, this was on an almost four hour flight that arrived at 11 PM). They all tie to my Dad's cancer diagnosis. I'm reluctant to share them since they're a little all over the place, but since my previous written in one sitting post was so well accepted, I am going to go ahead and post what I wrote then, and then post my one-week-later follow-up thoughts (so please read to the end).

- I'm never entirely sure how to break the news to someone. People at work ask me how he's doing, and I don't want to deal with their sense of loss, so I fake it. I tell them the positives, tell them there are no new tumors, tell them about his leg wound healing - am I lying to them? Not really, I'm just letting them believe that things are OK. I'm selfish. I want people to just BE NORMAL. I know I have more of the facts than you do and that you want the facts, but just let me be normal! I want my dad to come back to work so they can ask him, not me, I want to hide. I want to push the responsibilities and the everything off onto other people.

- I don't know how to use time the between now and the mysterious "then", how to use the time we still have because things already feel a little different. For example, Stephanie saying "Dad, don't eat that!" doesn't seem relevant anymore. Why worry about dieting when you're worrying about dying? And I hate the feeling that we have to take a family photo at EVERY opportunity. We didn't used to be that way!

- I freak out often thinking about the future where I can't ask my dad for help or advice or anything,where I can't say, "Dad, I need this advice". Is that making me loose my chances to get that advice now? Do I even know what pearls of fatherly wisdom I want to get while I still can?

- I'm afraid of people's pity. I don't want to be the daughter with the dying dad, don't want to think I owe anything I get to that circumstance, don't want to use it as an excuse for failures. But by not talking because I fear pity, I shut people out.

- I'm afraid of what this means for the rest of my life, of what it will do to the life I always expected, to the life I thought I deserved, And I'm angry I'm not getting what I thought I deserved. And then I think, you know, we don't deserve anything. And then I worry I'm taking other things for granted and that I don't know precisely what it is that I take for granted, that might not be granted, and yet I do nothing to appreciate what I've got any more than before.

- Knowing the impact of other people's loss makes that anticipation all the worse. It just seems like it's going to be soul crushing. For example, at the conference I was just at, Sheryl Sandberg told a story about how after her husband died she continued a challenge ge gave her about writing three things you did will everyday, and some days her grief was so dark that the best thing she could write was "Made Tea". Everyone dreads pain. I don't want to hear how they've felt what I feel, because even if it's true, I'm so obsessed with my own experiences with it that I cannot imagine that anyone else can have felt exactly this way before.

Here is one quick retrospective note on those thoughts. I wrote those notes as a reaction to a book loaned to me by a good friend (the book is called "A Grace Disguised"). Before I picked up the book, I spent some time talking to my airplane seatmate, a young man who had graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and was on the plane for a weekend where he was planning to talk with his girlfriend's father about proposing (so he was understandably excited). He and I had talked for a while about his elaborate proposal plans and then had split off to our separate books to read. He had asked me what I was reading, and I said something like "A book about grief", which he remarked was, "an interesting choice", at which point I said, "well, my father is dying of cancer". That's a pretty good conversation killer, so he expressed his sympathies and left me to it. As I scribbled my above notes, he tapped my arm and asked if I wanted to talk about it - and I said no. At this point, he pulled out a rosary (he was Catholic) and told me he would just pray for us instead.

This airplane experience isn't the first time some stranger has expressed genuine concern for me and my family. About a year ago, I was interviewing for a job that would require me to move around the country. A year ago, my Dad still had to undergo leg surgery, and I was reluctant to take a job that would have moved me away from family. When I explained this situation to one of the interviewers, he immediately expressed his empathy (his mother had just died of cancer the previous summer) and volunteered to pray for us - and I know he meant it because he wrote down my father's first name and the type of cancer that he had. I recently saw this gentleman again at a professional networking event, where he remembered to ask for an update.

While these stories don't invalidate the feelings expressed in the notes above, I wanted to add a general positive note to the end of this otherwise emotionally draining post. I know you all hurt for and with us - it doesn't change how I feel, but I do know and notice. Even with two strangers, I know and notice and appreciate.

PS - to my airplane buddy, I hope your talks with your hopefully-future-father-in-law went well and that you and your lady have a wonderful, enriching marriage :)

Friday, October 9, 2015

My UMBC Story

Today, I went to the launch party for UMBC's 50 year anniversary celebration, which will take place on Sept. 19th of 2016. Today was the beginning of a year long campaign to get more alumni involved with the campus. UMBC has over 70,000 alum, only 20,000 of whom remain connected to the school. The goal over the next year is to get 10,000 more alumni involved with the university again. Part of the campaign asked us to tell our UMBC stories. I've been thinking about it all night - and this is my story.

When I was a senior in high school, I did NOT want to go to UMBC. I did not want to be in the suitcase school, I did not want to be so close to home, and I definitely did not want to go to a public university. I had my heart set on going to a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I interviewed at primarily private liberal arts schools in PA, and I fell in love with one in particular - Ursinus College, where every student got a free laptop, and the Intervarsity student I had lunch with was very attractive (so, no good reasons, just greedy),

I visited UMBC three times, and I had a bad attitude about it every time, I remember walking around Patapsco dorm, being told that it was a typical freshman dorm, and thinking "this is not where I want to be". But I applied anyways, because it was free, and I applied for the CWIT (at the time, that stood for Center for Women in Information Technology) Scholarship, because I was an Asian kid and I applied for all the scholarships that I was told I had to apply for, and I applied for the Honors College, because I applied for the Honors College at every school. And that's when my UMBC story began to change.

I remember going to the CWIT Scholar Interview day. I wasn't particularly nervous, because I thought I didn't want to go to UMBC anyways. That day was the day that I met the professor that I would ultimately end up doing graduate research with, and the day I started to think that maybe I was wrong about UMBC. Dr. desJardins asked me the typical college interview question - "give me three words to describe yourself". I said two other words that I forget, and the word "sister". I described how I was the oldest in a family of nine (at the time, my youngest sister had just turned one), and how my entire life had been about being a part of communities. I described the communities of girls from summer camp and youth group at church (girls I'm still friends with today) and how my life had revolved around being "the big sister". I looked up to see the student interviewer's face glowing. She said, "you'll fit right in with CWIT". She described to me how CWIT called their monthly meetings "Family Meetings" and described the Big WIT/Little WIT program, where new CWIT scholars are assigned upper classmen mentors to offer them advice. After the interview day, one of the CWIT scholars showed us her room on the CWIT LLC (Living Learning Community). And I thought "hey, this dorm isn't so bad, and it's cool that they're all the same major". And my heart thawed a little bit towards UMBC.

Fast forward to Honors College Accepted Students day. I still have a crummy attitude, but we go to the event. I heard a panel of honors college students talking about their experiences in student leadership, their experiences with studying abroad, and their experiences in the Honors College freshman class, Honors Forum, and how Honors Forum helped them get into undergraduate research opportunities. I heard Dr. Simon Stacy, the then assistant director of the Honors College, say these words - "In the Honors College, we want you to be able to have conversations about things that interest you with people you can assume are also interested". Later, I heard a student address Dr. Stacey as "Simon", and I thought "Wow. I want this experience. I want this community of interested people, I want this comraderie with professors."

So when it came time for college decisions, I had boiled my choices down to Bucknell University (a private, liberal arts school in PA) and UMBC. I had scholarships for female engineering students at both universities, and I was in the honors college at both schools. I remember being in my room with my mom telling me to choose UMBC (which admittedly, was way cheaper) and my dad coming in and telling me to make my own choice, but that he thought the CWIT program would give me a more personalized experience - and I decided that yes, I was going to go to UMBC.

Fast forward through high school graduation and most of the summer to Honors Students Orientation Weekend. I met my Orientation roommate, a talkative Honors College student and Linehan Artist Scholar named Dianne. We didn't really spend much time together then, but Dianne and I interacted all throughout undergrad (we both had Sch- last names). I went to all the shows she did as a theater major, and she read my articles in the newspaper when I started writing for the paper my sophomore year (but we're getting ahead in the story). At that honors orientation, I met Lily and Stevo, two CWIT scholars who gave us homework for the CWIT summer retreat, which would be later that summer. And I met two of my three suitemates, Karen and Katrina.

A few weeks later, and all the CWIT kids were back at UMBC for the CWIT scholars summer retreat. We learned about being A students, we were told to always sit in the front row of classes, I met my freshman year RA (who I loved) and I was excited to hang out with those kids again when school started in a few weeks.

Freshman year started. Of 14 new CWIT students, only three of us didn't have boyfriends - me, Karen, and my soon-to-be best friend, Christina. Karen had friends from her high school, so Christina and I became fast friends. Because of Christina, I became friends with other people - she knocked on every door in the hall for dinner EVERY SINGLE NIGHT our entire freshman year. Without Christina, I would not have met anyone in my dorm in college. Christina and I also did our first undergraduate research experience together! On our floor, besides our excellent RA Tom, we had a great Welcome Week Leader (or Woolie), Andrew. Andrew was EXTREMELY memorable. He made us paint our faces and wear ninja headbands to welcome events. He'd sit in his dorm room and play the guitar with the door open, just inviting us in for conversation. He never wore shoes. And he also just happened to be the small group Bible study leader for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in my dorm. Me and all of my suitemates all went to Bible study together. Our small group not only had dinner together, we had weekly fun nights, we had after-church lunch on Sundays - it was the best small group experience I have ever had. But my freshman year wasn't just centered around dorm life - I took a class from UMBC's recent Faculty-of-the-Year award winner, Dr. Tara Carpenter. She was an AMAZING Chem 101 teacher. I learned so much from her and had an excellent experience in my Chem study group and going to her office hours. She was just the first example of what UMBC professors could be for me. Anyways, those are just a few highlights of my freshman year at UMBC.

My sophomore year had a few highlights of it's own. I started meeting one-on-one with Andrew's girlfriend-now-wife Bethanie (the chapter president for Intervarsity). I got assigned an honors college advisor, Dr. Kelber-Kaye, who taught me a lot about gender equality issues, and who helped me (mostly by having opinions I disagreed with) really examine what I thought politically and personally about a lot of issues surrounding gender, race and politics. I took CS341H with Dr. Tim Oates, the professor I took classes with for five of my eight UMBC undergrad semesters (and TA'd for his class for my final undergrad semester). Dr. Oates is easily, without a doubt the best CS instructor I have ever had. I remember things I learned from his classes (even 341 several years ago) because of his teaching style. I also became better friends with Alec, the "guy CWIT scholar" in our graduating class. I pin-point 341H as the place where Alec and I became real friends. In spring of my sophomore year, I started writing for the technology section of the Retriever Weekly, which would have a major impact on my final years at college, and I took a UMBC Ballroom Dance class - where I met my husband. My sophomore year, CWIT really helped me out of the rut of "sophomore slump" and I began to appreciate my program for what it really was.

My junior year I became the president of the ballroom dance club, the section editor for the technology section of the retriever weekly (which allowed me to visit the university president in his office!), and a teaching assistant for the first time. I met my CWIT Industry Mentor, a female engineer from Lockheed Martin, and was completely, utterly in love with UMBC. This was the year that my friend Tom (not the RA, a different Tom) said "Emily, if there's such a thing as too much school spirit, you have it". This was the year I got into a comfortable community with the other Intervarsity upperclassmen in our apartments Bible study. This was the year Christina got me out of my goodie-two-shoes shell and got me to go to parties and actually enjoy myself. This was the year I felt confident about UMBC, and this was the year I started taking graduate school classes and officially enrolled in the BS/MS program.

My senior year, I gave a speech for CWIT's yearly scholar reception alongside my good friend Alec. I went to Andrew and Bethanie's wedding, where I cried because my "big sister" was marrying my "big brother" and I was thrilled (remember, I described myself as a sister at the start of this post). I took my final honors college class with Dr. Kelber Kaye and made her cry talking about how her classes had taken me full circle - I had started in an honors class with her and would finish in an honors class with her. I mentored my two little WITs (two of the most precious girls) and tried as much as I could to give back to the school that had given so generously to me. The school noticed - I won the CS department leadership award upon graduation for how much I had represented the department and for my participation in candidate interviews, most notably the interviews for the new dean of the college of engineering. After my senior year, I did one extra semester to finish my graduate school education, and I graduated from UMBC twice in the same year.

The great thing is, my UMBC story doesn't end there. This past summer, when I got married, my class valedictorian and fellow honors college member, Travis, came to see my wedding. Alec and Christina, my CWIT friends mentioned earlier in this post, were both IN the wedding (as DJ and bridesmaid). And of course, a whole table of Intervarsity kids were there, with big brother/big sister pair Andrew and Bethanie (who brought a board game to play at my wedding reception - something I absolutely loved). My little WIT Sophie was there too. I saw my good friends from Intervarsity, Alan and Kelsey, get married about a month after my own wedding. Today, I was back at UMBC for the UMBC 50 launch, and tomorrow I'll be back for the honors college reception. In two weeks, I'll be back for the CWIT Fall Networking event. One of my co-workers, Katherine, is serving as a CWIT industry mentor because I recommended it. I went from the kid who did not want to go to UMBC, ever, to the woman who loves her alma mater with a fierce passion, and who will do whatever it takes to make UMBC proud of her.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Three Thoughts from a Working Woman

Dear Blog Readers -
I have had the following posts brewing in my head for a while, and since they all relate to work, I thought I'd post them all at one time. Enjoy! :)
1) Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test?

The Bechdal test ( if you don’t know, basically asks if in a work of fiction, do two women have a conversation, in a room, alone, about something other than a man. And I usually test movies that I watch against these standards, and judge them for not portraying real life.

However, about two months ago, I had a conversation alone in a computer lab at work with my co-worker Elizabeth, and realized something - that was the first day in that week that I had a conversation that passed the Bechdel test.

Now, I realize that may sound a tad extreme, so I started doing some review of my life, and taking stock before I decided to write this blog post. Where I work, groups are divided into sections. In my section, I am one of eight, and I'm the only female. My group is a little better, but still, I think we only have 8-10 women in a group of over 60 members.

I've worked on two main projects (with a third project that has rotated around to be several different things at different times). On my two main projects, there's Elizabeth on one of the projects, and just me on the other (I had another female co-worker, but she's had to shift to other tasks). I do have a female office mate, but she and I don't talk on a daily basis - we're both too busy! Sometimes we do talk, but when we do, we are usually talking about our male co-workers (not in a gossip-y way, more in a "have you seen Aaron today" way), or our significant others. Not something that would pass the Bechdel test.

OK, so that's just at work, right? That's because I am a STEM female, I signed up for this life, I signed up to work with the guys.

Well, I looked at my life after work too, and I determined that I don’t spend time with other women on a daily basis. I am in a book club and I meet with a small group of gal pals from childhood, but I’m mainly hanging out with guys – my guy friends, my husband, and his guy friends. And I have seven sisters! I don’t believe the movies that fail the Bechdel test are true to life – my life is not the rule for all women – but it is interesting, given my STEM career, that I don’t pass this test most days. At least, I thought it made me feel funny, and it made me more conscious of seeking out those other ladies.
2) How Work is Like College (a humorous list):
-         You have a room that you decorate. Sure, you call it an office or a cubicle, but the principle is the same – you decorate with posters of your sports teams, TV shows you like, etc. No posters about alcohol here though.
-         You split your space with a roommate/officemate/cube mates. They sometimes have visitors, and you have to be quiet and leave. It’s not because they’re in a relationship anymore, but you still know – a closed door when you know they are in there means you should find somewhere else to be.
-         You have a hall and a “dorm” (building) and there are parties and email list just for the “dorm residents”.  Instead of being reminders about quiet hours, the building emails are usually about cars with headlights left on, but the food at the building parties is way better than it was in college. In fact, at APL our group admins are somewhat like RAs – you go to them for all the answers.
-         Everyone hates on the cafeteria. No explanation needed. Rumors of building a Chipotle nearby are still as rampant as ever and still never come true.
-         Extra-curricular clubs still all meet at the same time. Sure, the clubs are a little more technical – Computer Security Reading Group vs. Machine Learning Forum where in college it would have been the DIY Sundae Stand vs. the acapella choir singing, but everything is still scheduled for noon to one pm, usually on Wednesdays.
-         The gym still sucks. You still see the athletic people and feel lame for running so slow on a treadmill. But my co-worker Barry said that if you’re at the gym at all, you shouldn’t feel lame because you’re trying to better yourself. So that was a nice sentiment.
-         There are still finals. Instead of the end of the school year it’s the end of the fiscal year, and instead of professors, its executives, but you still have to prove you have done work and that you accomplished, aka learned, something.
-         So essentially, work is college, only you can’t take summers off, and you don’t constantly have homework (it’s constrained to the 40 hours in the office).
3) The problem of “How are you”
Earlier this week, I attended an event hosted by the Hopkins Women’s Network titled “Strategic Connections: How to make your connections count”. It was designed to encourage professional networking, but one part in particular stuck out to me as true across the board, in a professional context or in any other context – the question “how are you?”
The presenter at the professional networking session thought that this was a bad question because of how easy it is to turn into a “nothing question” in the hallway – that is, it is easy to fall into this pattern  - “hey, how are you?, fine, how are you?, I’m just fine, what’s new?, nothing much, new with you? Not too much. Cool, we should talk again sometime.”
Did that count as a conversation? The presenter went on to say that a better way to do that conversation is to try to think of one concrete detail you know about that person, and what you can ask them. For example, “How’s your wife?” if you met their spouse, or “happy birthday!” if you happen to remember that.
Personally, I’d say at work, skip asking how are you at all. In my experience, people ask it as they pass in the hallway, and they don’t want an answer. They are just conditioned to say that after hi. If I give a real answer, people are often shocked. If we're just chatting, ask me what you want to know – how’s work on X project, how’s marriage, did you like the luncheon - something specific. Or if you’re just passing me in the hall, don’t bother – it’s OK to just say hi!

But if you ask “how are you” when I’m having a bad day (which happened recently) it will do more damage to our relationship than good if you’re already moving to your prepared “good to see you” response to what was supposed to be me saying fine, but was really me crying out for you to be relational with me, to hear what was overwhelming me at that moment. It's OK to not want to be uber-relational at work. Here's the deal though - I want to spend time on real relationships, so if you're gonna ask, I'm gonna give real answers. And sometimes, those answers will be outside of our happy technical realm (sometimes they won't be). Bottom line: At work, either be relational, or don’t be. But don’t fake it just cause it's work.

PS - as I read this over I realized it sounded pessimistic. Understand, some people at work ARE relational, and really ARE invested in me personally and professionally. It's not like I have NO work relationships, it's just not everyone, and the assumption that "how are you" should always be answered with "fine" got under my skin. Thanks, people who are invested in me and are taking our relationships past the "simple associates" level, and who really want to know what's going on with me. Y'all are great.