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Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Pascua Shares Her Success in Technology and Innovation by Paying it Forward

Jennifer PascuaJennifer Pascua (ICS ’03) first came to UCI intent on earning a business degree, but her plans changed after she took an introductory computer science course. Recognizing her passion for technology and innovation, the first-generation Filipino-Chinese American instead graduated from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). She went on to become a software engineer and later earned a master’s degree in business administration from Pepperdine University. In 2012, as a senior program manager at Thales Avionics, she led a team in delivering the company’s first B787 aircraft to Japan following the 2011 tsunami. When Jennifer was inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame, she recalled the significance of that work. “Not only were we performing engineering tasks, but what we were doing had a bigger purpose. We were helping rebuild a nation.”

Jennifer excels in building connections between her work and the larger community, whether as program management director of engineering services at Thales, as an active member of the Women’s Unlimited LEAD program or as the Project Potluck co-founder planning STEM activities for at-risk children. Here, she talks about how UCI helped cultivate a mindset for professional and personal success, compelling her to pay it forward.

Jennifer Pascua with the 2017 ICS Hall of Fame inductees.
Jennifer Pascua with the 2017 ICS Hall of Fame inductees.

How did you first become interested in computer science?
Growing up, I enjoyed playing Oregon Trail on my Apple 2GS computer and Tetris on my gaming console. I loved how computers could be both entertaining and educational for people of all ages. I have always been passionate about creating new business ideas to make our lives easier, but it wasn’t until college that I realized how the ICS major could give me an opportunity to create technical solutions that simplify our lives and help others.

What led you to attend UCI and study ICS?
I went to UCI originally to pursue my business degree, since UCI had an excellent program in economics and business. I was planning on following in my parents’ entrepreneurial footsteps until one of my best friends encouraged me to enroll in the ICS 21 course. I remember how much I enjoyed programming my first calculator because it gave me the opportunity to use my creative, analytical and strategic skills to come up with my own unique solutions. I found it fulfilling to create new programs from concept to final deliverable, and I ultimately decided to pursue ICS because it allowed me to combine my technical and analytical skills along with my passion for technology and innovation.

Can you talk about your work at Thales Avionics?
In my latest role as director of program management for engineering services, I was responsible for managing both hardware and software deployment for sustaining airline customers. On the software side, this included deploying software updates for existing legacy systems, rolling out new software such as cybersecurity software to all airlines, and troubleshooting aircraft on ground (AOG) issues. On the hardware side, it included working with engineering teams to deploy hardware updates to improve reliability and performance.

As part of my everyday duties, I worked with cross-functional teams, including program managers, software engineers, hardware engineers, UX designers, media managers, product managers, seat installation engineers and field teams to understand the issues experienced by our airline customers and provide corrective actions. Some of the solutions were quick fixes that could be deployed within a few hours, while other solutions were more complex and required planning an entire software release or initiating a new product improvement development.

Can you also talk about your advocacy work?
I am a strong champion for women in leadership, an advocate for diversity and inclusion, and a supporter of youth STEM opportunities. I am currently a motivational speaker and enjoy developing leadership workshops to encourage and empower women, people of color and first-generation Americans to become leaders within the community. I also work with organizations to develop diversity and inclusion initiatives, and I partner with local schools to promote STEM learning.

How has your UCI education helped along the way?
UCI’s ICS program not only taught me how to program and gain technical skills but, more importantly, it gave me the tools to prepare for my future, ultimately shaping my career. It helped me develop my mindset for both my professional and personal life and apply important lessons learned about working hard, networking and paying it forward.

For example, I remember Professor Klefstad once telling us to look to the left and then the right, noting that the person sitting next to us might not make it to the end of the class because of the level of difficulty. Although ICS in general and that class in particular were challenging, I realized the importance of hard work and perseverance — whether spending long hours of coding in the computer lab or, later in life, working long hours to troubleshoot an aircraft.

The second lesson I learned is the importance of networking and being kind to everyone you meet. I developed lifelong friends at UCI and have similarly developed long-term business relationships with my airline customers, business partners and mentors. Some of my most memorable UCI moments were the times I spent in the computer lab with friends. When we would experience “coder’s block” at 3 a.m., we would do silly things to entertain ourselves: spinning each other in the chairs or having one of my friends do a dance before we gave her the answer for an algorithm. We always found a way to laugh regardless of the situation, and I’ve brought that same approach to the corporate world, encouraging my team to have fun while working and show their true selves. Sometimes we’ll do “Kendo” (Japanese martial arts) together or we’ll come up with a funny dance routine. Other times we’ll have deep conversations with our airline customers, internal team and business partners. Through these experiences, we can connect and develop meaningful relationships, allowing us to work more cohesively and treat each other with respect and trust. It becomes like a second family, so we genuinely want to work hard to help each other become successful.

Lastly, I learned to always pay it forward when I have the opportunity. Throughout my academic career and personal life, I have been thankful to have supportive mentors, teachers, friends and family providing encouragement and helping me along the way. As a result, I wanted to pay it forward and help others in need, which is the main reason why I created Project Potluck 10 years ago.

Can you tell us more about Project Potluck?
It’s a small volunteer group that helps at-risk children and homeless families in Orange County. Our mission is to “feed the mind, body and soul of those in need while learning about the richness and diversity of each person.” Project Potluck “feeds the mind” of both at-risk children and volunteers as we spend quality time together and learn about each other and our cultural diversity. It “feeds the body” by providing healthy meals to those in need and by donating money to local hospitals. Lastly, it “feeds the soul” by bringing people together and breaking barriers as we welcome those in need to Project Potluck events, whether that’s serving food to homeless families or hosting a STEM workshop at a local orphanage. Our goal is to provide not only food and money, but also a sense of belonging to those in need, reminding them that they are loved.

What advice do you have for underrepresented students who hope to follow in your footsteps?
There may be trying times, but through it all, keep your head up, stay focused and stay true to who you are. Don’t let others or even your own personal insecurities bring you down. Be proud of where you came from and all the challenges you have overcome. Represent your culture, heritage, diversity, family and roots as best you can by being your authentic self, because for every one of us who succeeds, there is somebody out there who believed in us and helped us in our journey. For me, this includes my grandparents, who came from a poor rural family but showed me the meaning of hard work. It includes my parents, who sacrificed by leaving their home in the Philippines to move to the U.S. to give me an opportunity for a better education. Most importantly, it includes my husband, son and daughter, who have always provided unconditional love and support. They are the reason I work hard each day and want to make a positive impact on the world, bringing love, empathy, grace and compassion to everything that I do. Always remember those who have helped you throughout your journey and pay it forward when you can.

Lastly, live your life courageously and be a legacy of love. Even when you’re afraid, have the courage to continue pursuing what makes your heart and soul happy. Be proud of who you are, with all your flaws and imperfections. You do not need to apologize to others or even to yourself. You are unique, magnificent and loved. Be unapologetically you!

Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn to learn more about Project Potluck or about speaking events, leadership workshops and volunteer opportunities.

— Shani Murray