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Afework_HeadShotSenior Daniel Afework took his last final on Dec. 17, 2020 in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). The fourth-year computer science major, a transfer student from College of the Canyons, is graduating two quarters early. In January, he’ll trade his part-time work as an instructor for K-12 students at Coding Minds for his full-time job as a software engineer at American Express. Here, he talks about what helped him get to where is he is today — and it wasn’t just his computer science courses. He looked to family, leveraged extracurricular actives and joined campus clubs, took on a leadership role and reached out to fellow students, finding opportunities to learn all around him and making the most of his two years at UCI.

What first sparked your interest in computer science?
My parents immigrated from Ethiopia, and as with a lot of immigrant parents, I didn’t have many choices when it came to what they wanted me to study. They wanted me to be an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer. I’m the youngest of three boys, and while my oldest brother studied computer science, my other brother went the med school route, and he looked like he was in pain 24/7! So I decided to try computer science. I was fortunate enough to be able to take community college classes while in high school, and I enrolled in an “intro to computer science” class. It was really fun! I thought I’d just keep doing it as long as it was fun, and I never thought it wasn’t fun anymore. I just kept going from there.

What led you to UCI?
My high school was part of a joint program with a local community college, and we had a really cool counselor who would sit down with you to talk about your academic goals. I told her that I wanted to study computer science in California and she gave me a list of four or five universities that she said were really good. One was UCI, so it was always on my radar, but I first took courses at the community college. UCI came to the forefront when I started applying to transfer. I was torn between a few different schools, but when I went to the hackathon LA Hacks, I was able to see computer science students from every single kind of university. It was a unique opportunity to talk to different people about their schools, and although most students seemed content with their computer science program, the students from UCI were very excited to talk about it! When I saw their enthusiasm, I made the decision to come to UCI.

Have you had a favorite professor while at UCI?
I took ICS 53 [Principles in System Design] with Professor Jennifer Wong-Ma [and] I felt that her teaching style was really good. She did a lot of cool things where she’d call students up from the lecture hall to be part of her demo. For example, to explain networking concepts, she might make you hold a plastic cup and make another student try to throw a ping pong ball into the cup to illustrate a networking instance. That kind of stuff kept me really engaged and made it fun. Even though her homework was tough, and I was very stressed that quarter – that was one of the more time-consuming classes I’ve taken — I felt like what I learned was important. I also really respected how much effort she put into the class. She would wake up every morning at like 5 a.m. to answer Piazza posts. It stood out to me that she cared about her students.

What has been the best part of your experience at UCI?
Being a part of UCI’s Tennis Club and taking on the role of its fundraising chair has been a much more rewarding experience than I ever thought it could be. When I came to UCI, I was surprised to find out that the Tennis Club was one of the biggest sports clubs on campus. Even though I hadn’t touched a racket since high school, I decided to join. Everyone was super chill and friendly. As a transfer student, I never got the dorm experience and didn’t take anything other than computer science classes, so I missed out on meeting people from different backgrounds. But this is a social club as much as it is a sports club, so I got to talk to people that I wouldn’t meet in my classes.

Afework Tennis
Daniel Afework on the court with UCI’s Tennis Club.

After my first year, I wanted to give back, so I applied to be an officer and became the fundraising chair. I organized an event where we made and mailed holiday cards to kids in a children’s hospital, and I held campus fundraisers. I never thought I could be that person, talking with everyone and heckling people to buy stuff on Ring Road, but here I was, able to have that opportunity, and I’m really grateful for it!

When I was in high school, I more kept to myself [but I’ve since] realized how much computer science, especially the software engineering industry, is about the social connections. You need to be able to convey your thoughts, and that carries more crossover than just being really good at coding. Through this leadership position, I learned that I like being able to talk and interact with people. It’s fun learning about people’s different experiences, and that directly translates into being able to network.

Speaking of people’s different experiences, you’re featured in the video, “The 2%: Navigating UCI as a Black Student.” Can you talk a bit about that?
I met the director of the film, Iyanna Blackburn, through the Tennis Club. She was the public relations director, so we were both officers together. She’s also in AnteaterTV, and the video was a project she did about being a Black student at UCI. It’s an interesting experience. As I mention in the documentary, I’m from a predominantly non-Black area. Every Sunday, we’d drive to LA to go to an Ethiopian church, so I had that cultural experience every week, but when it came to school or things in my hometown, I was usually the only Black person in the room. So when I came to UCI, it wasn’t a jarring transition for me, but for students who come from a more diverse area, it’s kind of tough. So I think it’s really important that we have these organizations on campus to uplift each other.

In the video, you mention your involvement with the East African Student Association (EASA) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
I didn’t immediately join them, and I kind of regret not doing that sooner because when I went to the meetings, I [realized] that this is a support structure. If you don’t have people who look like you, or don’t see people doing things that you want to do, you might not think that you’re able to do it. I’m fortunate that I watched my older brother go through his computer science journey. He’s been successful, so at the end of the day, I know I can be successful. But if everybody around you doesn’t look like you, it kind of feeds into imposter syndrome.

At my first EASA meeting, it was cool to see a bunch of East African students basically fill up a classroom. It was like, “wow, you’re also Ethiopian [and] you know my culture!” There were also a few meetings we did with the Nigerian Student Association (NSA), and having those spaces is very important.

NSBE is also beneficial, especially if you’re a newer student. They have speakers from industry come in, helping you connect with Black professionals, and there’s a convention they go to every year (except this year because of the pandemic) that has a career fair, which can help you get into industry. Outside of that, they bridge the gap between what you learn in school and what you need to know in terms of professionalism and how your resume should look. Their events also give you a sense of comfort and security when you might otherwise be feeling intimidated coming into these spaces with people who might not look like you or relate to you. There’s a lot of value in joining NSBE.

What other advice do you have for prospective computer science students?
Imposter syndrome is huge in this major. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a represented or underrepresented community. There are people who have been coding since they were in seventh grade or who had an internship in high school. They have this huge rap-sheet resume before the second quarter and you just feel like you’re behind. But in reality, you’re not. Most people are in your shoes. The biggest benefit of computer science is that the ball is always in your court; you can always do stuff on your own time to bolster your resume and set yourself apart. You can develop a personal project or two on your own outside of class. You can always get ahead, and that’s very important to do early on to help get an internship. That will be more important than having straight As, so don’t beat yourself up if one quarter doesn’t go too well; don’t get discouraged.

If you got into the school, you deserve to be here. If your community college didn’t prepare you enough for the curriculum, then the burden falls on you to improve yourself, but things will get better as long as you use the resources here at UCI, like NSBE or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). These kinds of organizations also help with networking. You’d be surprised how many students who’ve had internships before are the ones who can refer you in the future. So if you’re a first-year transfer student, find another student who might be a fourth year and who has a similar background. Ask them for advice. In my experience, the computer science students are very friendly and want to give back. It’s not super cutthroat; everyone wants to lift each other up. But it falls on you to ask for the help — as they say, “a closed mouth don’t get fed!”

What are your future plans?
The summer after my first year at UCI, I went to a campus career fair, and I got an internship at American Express. I spent the summer in Phoenix, and that was a great experience. I stayed with them again this summer, even though it was online because of the pandemic, and then I signed an offer! So starting Jan. 25, I’ll be a full-time software engineer for American Express. It’s going to be remote until June 2021, and then, depending on how the pandemic goes, I plan on moving to Phoenix.

I think internships are just as much about your evaluation of the company as they are about the company’s evaluation of you. If you don’t feel like it’s a good fit, then you should be ready to jump ship. But if they do treat you well, you need to really think about that. I knew I could look for other work, and I did line up a few other interviews, but I came back to American Express because I knew I had a great experience there. I’m definitely excited for the future!

— Shani Murray