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Monday, November 16, 2015

Spotlight on our Network: A Google Lime Scholar Shares Her Story

Categories: Spotlight on our Network

Google Lime Scholar, Paulette Penzvalto, was intimidated by the scholarship application and convinced herself that all other applicants must be more qualified than she. Here’s her story of her love for CS, the struggle she felt over applying, and the joy the award brought her…

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved technology and enjoyed logical processes, but struggled significantly with math.  I compensated with an unusual aptitude for languages and music, and when I went to graduate school for Opera at the University of Cincinnati, I was introduced to Computer Science and highly impressed by the engineering students, but my quantitative and self-esteem challenges prevented me from believing I could ever be one of them.

I was invited to present at a Tech Conference in Silicon Valley last year and I spoke specifically about the importance of women breaking through barriers, and achieving goals which are considered out of reach.  Women in general are challenged by more circumstantial barriers in the workforce than their male counterparts, and women with disabilities are a minority within a minority.  During this talk, I realized that one of the barriers holding me back was simply that I was experiencing similar barriers.  Shortly thereafter, I applied to the Computer Science Program at Columbia University; I wanted to be an example to other women of succeeding a male dominated environment and to challenge myself to reach my full potential, regardless of learning challenges, perceived disabilities, or societal pressure.

After pursuing, and receiving, a diagnoses of a severe quantitative learning disability, and testing in the 2nd percentile for mathematics, I undertook the herculean effort of assimilating a lifetime of mathematics in one semester, achieving an A letter grade in my first quantitative CS course at Columbia.  I have now successfully embarked upon my second engineering course in Data Structures.  As a woman with a disability in engineering, I'm now a minority, within a minority, within a minority, but I love computer science and am committed to seeing where my studies will take me. 

When I first saw the application for the Google Lime Scholars Program, I grew excited and began to fill it out, but I was suddenly driven to stop.  I felt afraid and didn’t think I could possibly be chosen.  I cited a lack of experience, a belief that others were stronger coders than I, and a general conviction that Google was a place for the smartest and brightest, a fact I had not yet come to believe about myself.  I would occasionally look at the application and wonder if perhaps I was making a mistake in not finishing it, and it took a representative from Lime Connect reaching out to encourage me, for me to finally complete the application.  I reasoned that I no longer had an excuse to procrastinate, so I submitted it.  This was not as painful as I had anticipated, and I felt a tiny surge of hope that perhaps I had more to offer than I had given myself credit for.

A few weeks passed and one evening my phone rang.  Jennifer from Lime Connect called to let me know that I had been chosen to receive a $10,000 scholarship and a trip to the Google Scholars Retreat in Mountain View, California.  My jaw dropped- I worked full time to support my education, and for me, this award was transformational.  I began to cry, and then proceeded to dance around my room for a full five minutes, before calling my loved ones to let them know a miracle had occurred.

In the days preceding the retreat, my jubilation was replaced by apprehension- what if I couldn’t ‘hack’ the coding challenges, and everyone saw me for the fraud I was?  Would my poster of the activities of my Women in Computer Science group stand up next to the technical breakthroughs I was certain the others would be presenting?  To my surprise, the individuals I encountered were just like me, including the Googlers who had come out to support us.  My poster was well received and I was treated to story after story of heroic individuals overcoming a lifetime of challenges to pursue what they loved.  One Lime Scholar, a hilarious young programmer-sometimes-comedian named Michael Jackson, teamed up with me on the coding challenges because I knew Java and he knew Python- and the coding challenge, which had originally seemed scary, was now a source of enjoyment and laughter.  Seeing my fellow scholars’ willingness to face new challenges and receiving their encouragement proved to me that I belonged, even at Google. 

The retreat was more than just a learning experience- we had formed a family.  Everyone present was committed to helping each other grow and many of the staff and engineers committed to working with, and supporting us, beyond the week itself.  I returned to Columbia with a new-found confidence and appreciation for my abilities as a programmer, and accepted the responsibility to pay it forward through Google Scholars ENGAGE, and to inspire and empower individuals of all abilities, emboldening them to define and strategically achieve their personal moonshots, dreams and goals.

- Paulette Penzvalto, Columbia '18

Interested in learning more about the scholarship? Want some tips for the application? Listen to our webinar with two 2015 Google Lime Scholars who share their insights.


posted By Jennifer LaRusso-Leung | 12:00 AM | 0 comments < Previous Post     Next Post >

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