Student Ambassadors Visit Bay Area
After overcoming storm delays and flight cancellations that split the group in two, eight TJ students, accompanied by Computer Science teacher Ria Galanos and Partnership Fund Outreach & Partnerships Manager Sally Zabel, met with alumni representatives of several Bay Area companies on TJ’s first-ever Spring Break student ambassador trip, held April 10th-12th. Designed to bring TJ closer to our many alumni on the West Coast, most of whom work in the technology sector, the trip was entirely underwritten by the Partnership Fund.
The response to the TJPF’s trip announcement was overwhelming, with over 100 juniors and seniors submitting applications. Brief profiles of the eight student ambassadors — chosen by a committee made up of TJ faculty and administrators — are below:
Ankit Agrawal, TJ ’18: Editor-in-Chief, tjTODAY; Teaching Coordinator, Policy Debate; Executive Director, GIVE (student-founded non-profit); Neuroscience Lab
Kai Amelung, TJ ’18: Computer Team; summer entrepreneurship program; Web App Club; Varsity Soccer; Mobile & Web App Development Lab
Luca Frix, TJ ’18: Treasurer, Aerospace Initiative; videographer/producer for TJ, TJPF, Class of 2018, SGA; Track & Field; extensive mechanical work outside school; Electronics Lab
Elizabeth Hu, TJ ’17: USA Computing Olympiad; Latin Honor Society; summer research intern; Officer, Inspiring Femgineers (student-founded non-profit); Captain, Policy Debate; Captain, Track & Field; Cheerleading; Computer Systems Lab
Michael Krause, TJ ’18: Software Lead, TJREVERB (satellite); Officer, Technology Student Association; Ultimate Frisbee; soccer referee; Computer Systems Lab
Angel Peprah, TJ ’18: HackTJ organizer; Secretary, Black Student Union; Color Guard; Sirens (all-female a capella group); Astronomy Lab
Tarunikha Sriram, TJ ’18: TJPF intern; Teaching Assistant, Kumon; Engineering Design Lab
Niharika Vattikonda, TJ ’18: Student Representative, Fairfax County School Board (starting July 1); TJ Representative, Fairfax County Human Rights Commission; Publicist, Coding Lady Colonials; Organizer, HackTJ; Model UN; Events Director, Inspiring Femgineers; Mobile & Web App Development Lab
Those who obtained flights immediately after the storm passed were in San Francisco in time for the first scheduled meeting on Monday, April 10th at the offices of Verily Life Sciences LLC, owned by Alphabet (Google). Linus Upson, TJ ’89, VP of Engineering at Verily, talked about his career path — he formerly led the Chrome team at Google — and answered students’ questions about the Debug project, an effort by a team of scientists and engineers at Verily to breed sterile mosquitoes in hopes of displacing those that spread disease.
With the rest of the group arriving on Monday afternoon, all of the student ambassadors spent Tuesday in San Francisco, where they visited four different offices before attending the (sixth annual) Bay Area TJ Alumni Reception, hosted by Thumbtack. They began their day at Uber, where software engineer Edwin Zhang, TJ ’10, and David DyTang, TJ ’08, Manager, Marketplace Risk, answered questions about their experiences since graduating from TJ, their specific projects at the company, and how coding in the workplace differs from what is taught in Computer Science courses.
At Asana, Inc., developers of a mobile/web project tracking tool, the group had a tour, a Q&A session with product engineer/manager Rachel Miller, TJ ’05, Lili Jiang, TJ ’07, and Chinmay Patwardhan, TJ ’11, followed by lunch. Elizabeth Hu, the only senior in the group, commented: “During the Q&A session with TJ alumni, I was surprised by the spectrum of careers that could eventually meet together in one place. Alumni who followed a variety of paths in diverse fields shared this same space as product managers, engineers, and recruiters.”
Their first meeting of the afternoon was with Peter Swigert, TJ ’06, a program manager in data analytics at Solar City Corp., the country’s largest provider of solar power, now owned by Tesla. Swigert introduced some employees to the students. “It was intriguing to hear each individual’s role in a larger company’s ecosystem,” Elizabeth said.
The group ended the day at Thumbtack, where co-founder Sander Daniels, TJ ’01, presented the company’s history, including the importance of the TJ community in its founding and development, and introduced the group to the company’s large alumni contingent. Ankit Agrawal, TJ ’18, said, “With all the alumni, we were able to hear about a variety of perspectives and past experiences, while also answering questions they had about TJ.”
At 6:30pm, the student ambassadors were joined by dozens of alumni from around the region as they converged on Thumbtack for the annual Bay Area Meet-up. (Daniels was the first alum to host what has grown into a network of regional alumni events around the country. See August 2015 and May 2013 issues.) “Because of the event, we were able to meet with a lot of alumni from around the region,” Ankit continued, “and even got a surprise tour of the Twitter office in the same building.”
On Wednesday, the group headed south to Silicon Valley, where they met with Vlad Tenev, TJ ’04, co-founder of Robinhood, a firm that offers commission-free stock trading, who gave them an informal tour of his firm’s intimate Palo Alto office space. Robinhood was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal (see also March 2016 issue).
At Google Inc’s main campus in nearby Mountain View, the group sat for a presentation, enjoyed lunch at the famous cafeteria, and stopped by the Visitor Center, Android Garden, and Google store. Software engineer Brian Levinstein, TJ ’10, talked about his work on Google Express, a rapid-delivery service, and Mike Montemerlo, TJ ’93, an engineer on the company’s self-driving car project, discussed his work (see also May/June 2014 issue).
Because no Bay Area visit would be complete without a visit to Apple Inc., the ambassadors stopped in Cupertino on their way back to the San Francisco airport, where they met outside the building with engineering manager Adele Peterson, TJ ’99. Peterson spoke about the products that she’s worked on and highlighted the company’s creative atmosphere.
Ankit was particularly struck by the varied backgrounds of the tech company alums: “Vlad Tenev from Robinhood, for example, told us how he did NIH internships and took biology courses in high school, and discussed his transition from that to the tech world. . . . This was particularly eye-opening for me. It allowed me to recognize the multitude of opportunities there are outside of high school, and how what you do in high school doesn’t have to entirely confine you to what you do in college and beyond.”
Michael Krause, TJ ’18, echoed Ankit’s surprise at the fact that the Bay Area alums did not all start out interested in Computer Science. While pointing out that the entire trip, the Thumbtack reception in particular, was an “invaluable networking opportunity,” for the students, he noted that the information-sharing went both ways: “All alumni were curious about what we were working on for our Senior Research projects . . . and [interested in] our stories about the TJ experience,” he said.
Elizabeth summed up her impressions this way: “I realize now that there is no one way to reach ‘the dream job’ . . . but the common point of each alum’s journey was its starting point at TJ. The alums provided invaluable advice on how to make the most out of your time at TJ, where many of them met some of the greatest individuals with whom they are still in touch today. The nurturing environment at TJ for creativity, friendships, and the scientific thought process is something that they have carried with them their entire lives.”