“I am passionate about diversifying tech and amplifying the voices of underrepresented minorities,” reads the LinkedIn page of Stephanie Saldana, a student in UC Irvine’s master of data science (MDS) professional program. “My goal is to be a shining voice for my community as a first-generation, Mexican-American and inspire the younger generation to find their place in STEM.”
Saldana is already serving as a source of inspiration. After earning her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from The Ohio State University in 2022, she transitioned into the field of data science and is now an MDS program ambassador for the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). The GEM Fellowship recipient also just completed a summer internship at Cox Communications and took on the role of graduate co-chair for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at UCI (SHPE UCI). Here, she talks about struggling to find her place in STEM, connecting with a supportive community and encouraging others along the way.
What first prompted your interest in data science?
My journey with data science is still relatively new, but it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience so far. My background is in engineering, where I really fell in love with problem-solving and taking ideas from the concept phase to implementation. In my undergraduate engineering program, I was introduced to basic programming and data analysis, and I found myself very interested in exploring that further. Data science seemed to be the perfect intersection for me to channel my passion for problem-solving while also diving into programming, analytics, and data-driven decision-making.
Why did you decide to join the MDS program?
I chose the MDS program at UCI because I was looking for something that offered a blend of both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. One of the big deciding factors for me was the presence of a capstone project, which I knew would be a great learning opportunity and something that would prepare me for working in industry. Additionally, there were many resources available to students within the program, and that also helped me decide on the MDS program.
As a first-generation Mexican-American, can you talk a bit about finding your place in STEM?
Yes! For a while, I struggled with feeling imposter syndrome. I even almost talked myself out of doing engineering when I was a freshman in college. I am so glad that I decided to stick with it because it has really changed my life for the better.
A big reason I stayed in STEM was my involvement with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by other people who had similar stories to mine. Many of my friends in SHPE were also first-generation college students trying to navigate college on their own. I saw them getting job offers at companies such as Apple, IBM, Texas Instruments, etc., and it really inspired me to keep going. Finding a community of such amazing people was key for me to find my place in STEM, so it is my hope that I can help others do the same.
Can you share some of the ways you’re engaged with the campus community?
When I am not in class, I love involving myself on campus. I spend the majority of my time working as a peer tutor/mentor within the Office of Access and Inclusion. I help with MATLAB, statistics, some civil engineering classes and data science classes.
After that, I spend a bit of time with SHPE UCI. A friend and I just started as the graduate co-chairs, and we are really trying to build up a community for graduate students within STEM here at UCI.
As an ambassador for the MDS program, we mainly help with recruiting events and with research on how to improve our program. I have met a lot of amazing people through the ambassador program, so if there is anyone reading this that is interested in the MDS program, I highly encourage them to also apply to be an ambassador.
All in all, I love being involved on campus. It makes me feel like I have the opportunity to give back to the school that has given me so much opportunity.
Can you also talk about your experience as a data analytics intern at Cox Communications?
I had a really great time at my internship this summer. I was challenged a lot, but it was really rewarding. For example, I wrote a lot of SQL code for one of the projects I was working on. One of the main problems I ran into was that the code I wrote took too long to run, so I asked one of my co-workers to do a code review. He pointed out something I could change to make the code run faster, and it was mind blowing because I would have never thought to do that! I had lots of moments like that, so it was really great to be able to learn from my co-workers who have been doing this for a while now.
What are your future plans?
Right now, I am trying to secure a full-time job working either as a data scientist or data analyst. That will be the next immediate step for me following December graduation. However, I also see myself taking some sort of role that involves outreach for either high school or college students, maybe 10 years down the line.
Aside from my career plans, I hope that I can take myself on a short vacation before starting my full-time job! I think it would be a nice way of rewarding myself after getting my master’s degree.
Do you have any advice for prospective students interested in STEM?
One piece of advice that I heard in undergrad that has stuck with me is one of my mentors telling me, “You don’t get a gold star for accomplishing something on your own.” That stuck with me, because for a while, I thought that I had to do everything on my own and “tough it out.” But after hearing that, I realized that it is 100% ok to ask for help; life gets a bit easier to manage when you have people backing you up. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you never know what could come out of it.
Also, if there are any students currently at UCI who are in engineering or computer science, I encourage them to visit the OAI Student Center within the Rockwell Engineering Center where I tutor. We offer free tutoring in different classes, so it is worth checking out.
For National Hispanic Heritage Month, any role models you want to spotlight?
Selena Quintanilla is someone whose life and story has really inspired me. There are a lot of nuances experiencing life as a Mexican American, and if there is anything that I learned from her, it is that I can be equally proud to be both Mexican and American — even if sometimes I feel that I am not “enough” of one or the other.
I also again want to give a shoutout toall the individuals in SHPE OSU and SHPE UCI, because they’re going to be the role models for the next generation interested in STEM. I feel so lucky to have met everyone that I have within these clubs. They deserve all the recognition — not only during Hispanic Heritage Month, but all the time!
— Shani Murray