Tech for social good at Stanford: Seeing the forest for the trees, Part 1

Dec. 1, 2022, 10:26 a.m.

“How do you meaningfully integrate tech and social impact?” 

I often get asked this question by ProFros, frosh and my peers. At Stanford, I was fortunate to combine both passions, and this article expresses my deep gratitude for my Stanford experience by paying forward all the wisdom I received. While my journey has focused on using computer science (CS) for social impact, the lessons can be applied to other engineering disciplines, to use technology more broadly for social good. At Stanford, we have the unique opportunity to redefine our campus culture as we slowly return to normalcy since the pandemic.

This article is not intended as just a reflection; it is part of an active conversation on how “tech for social impact” can become a core tenet of Stanford’s culture. I share nine lessons (spread out over two articles) from my experiences, offer three future recommendations and end with a list of resources. 

9 Lessons

1. Rollout! Get involved in meaningful tech-for-good opportunities early 

Early on, a meaningful tech-for-good opportunity can transform how you approach the rest of your Stanford journey: the classes you take, the clubs you join, the internships you pick and, ultimately, your career trajectory.

I am grateful for two transformative experiences early in my Stanford journey. I took CS 51/52: “CS + Social Good Studio,” a two-quarter Cardinal Course, my frosh winter and spring. I worked with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on a project to use natural language processing (NLP) to identify grassroots leaders that could advocate for refugees’ assimilation in the US. My mind was blown when I realized I could use my burgeoning CS skills (I was still taking the CS 106 series) and make an immediate and tangible impact.

This influenced me to pursue a Cardinal Quarter through the CS+Social Good Summer Fellowship my frosh summer. I interned at the tech nonprofit, Tarjimly, where I worked on language translation technology for refugees around the world. These experiences cemented my passion in the tech-for-social-impact space and transformed how I approached my time at Stanford.

There are three main ways for someone to pursue such opportunities at Stanford: 

  1. Project-based classes with partner organizations: These include classes such as CS 51/52: “CS+Social Good Studio” and CS 184/PUBPOL 170: “Bridging Policy and Tech Through Design.” These classes enable you to pursue a tech-for-good opportunity during the quarter. The class structure ensures good accountability measures and a reliable and accessible team to make a tangible impact. Getting to work with partner organizations, such as Khan Academy, One Concern and the San Jose Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, provides direction, and grounds you in the real world compared to a contrived class project. Tip: you can filter for Cardinal Courses by interest area on Explore Courses!
  1. Student club projects with partner organizations: These include Code the Change and Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW). These organizations are great ways to work on a project during the school year and have similar benefits to working with a real-world partner, such as UNICEF. Compared to a class, it is a bit harder to stay accountable through clubs since they normally don’t have units or a class structure, but you can benefit from the freedom to stretch a project beyond the quarter timeline. Joining clubs can also be a great way to meet like-minded peers and make friends!
  1. Cardinal Quarter: This includes the CS+Social Good Summer Fellowships and the Tech Ethics & Policy Summer Fellowships. These are great ways to pursue a tech-for-good service opportunity full-time over the summer and get funding from the Haas Center to support your living costs. Without dealing with the many commitments of the school year, you can do the opportunity full justice. It can be especially hard to get tech internships as frosh and sophomores, so this can be a great opportunity to gain professional experience while having a positive impact.

2. WAYS for you, not Stanford: Make Stanford work for you

From your major to general requirements like WAYS, it can seem like you have little freedom in pursuing a social impact journey. Be creative and know that you can actively make Stanford work for you. Don’t be afraid to petition to count courses that truly excite you while fulfilling general requirements, and find creative ways to repurpose existing requirements, such as turning class projects into opportunities to work on a social impact problem. 

I wanted to have a tangible impact with the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) 2 requirement rather than go through the motions of extensive research and writing a long RBA. For my PWR 2, I picked PWR 2GMF: “Immigration Nation: Rhetoric Up Against the Wall.” This class was unique in that it required you to work with a real-world partner. Having worked the previous summer with Tarjimly through a Cardinal Quarter on tech to help with language access at detention centers, I focused my work in PWR 2 on evaluating existing policy and legislation on language access at detention centers. My Final Presentation and RBA were extremely useful for Tarjimly, as they informed how Tarjimly utilized policy to expand their efforts to help with language access at detention centers. It was deeply meaningful and fun to turn a routine requirement into an opportunity to have real-world impact.

During the winter of senior year, I was excited to explore an idea related to climate with friends. I devised a unique structure of taking two classes to pursue it. We would explore the stakeholder and business side of the problem through EARTHSYS 213: “Hacking for Climate Change & Sustainability” and explore the technical solution to the problem through an independent study in the CS Department, which would count for the CS Senior Project. It was exciting to make our Senior Project count for something in the real world and to dedicate units to both aspects of solving the problem. This kept us accountable across domains. A common critique of the entrepreneurship courses at Stanford — like Lean Launchpad, which already are very time-consuming — is that they have no effective structure to enable progress on the actual solution. For us, both aspects of solving the problem became synergistic, and insights from one class would inform the other’s progress. Taking these two classes simultaneously laid the foundation for my current work in climate.

3. Explore Courses: Go interdisciplinary, discovering themes and problems rather than just skills

As tech students, too often we can overvalue developing skills, like learning specific programming languages. While developing a strong technical foundation is important, it is also worth investing time to explore themes and problems that excite you across disciplines. Exploring climate change, for instance, could involve taking a range of courses, including in earth systems to understand climate science; international policy to construct effective global climate policy; and computer science to learn how to apply AI models to track climate indicators. This is a rewarding way to push yourself to take courses across disciplines and embrace a holistic systems approach to problem-solving. The greatest insights for solving complex problems are usually found at the intersection of fields. Experiencing that “Aha!” moment when your seemingly disparate course choices and a 4-year plan unite under the umbrella of an important problem is magical.

I enjoyed exploring three main problems across disciplines during my time at Stanford: the refugee crisis, accessibility and climate change. To explore accessibility, for example, I took courses ranging from the Introductory Seminar (IntroSem) CHEMENG 90Q: “Dare to Care: Compassionate Design,” to PSYCH 50: “Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience” to understand the neurobiological basis of disabilities. 

4. Global Citizenship: Think beyond the Stanford bubble

I vividly remember Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, visiting campus in the spring of 2019 during my frosh year. In his talk, he powerfully emphasized the importance of global citizenship. Stanford’s founding goal boldly calls on us to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization. Yet, living in the Stanford bubble can make it very easy for us to hyper-focus on our problems rather than focus on all the communities we can impact globally. (Look no further than the numerous renditions of dating apps that emerge on campus each year.) The resources at Stanford can enable us to approach the most pressing problems and uplift communities around the world, especially those that are disproportionately marginalized.

Personally, as an international student who has grown up in different countries, solving problems at the global level has always been very important to me. Ban Ki-moon’s talk served as a bold reminder to stay true to the spirit of global citizenship, which continues to inspire all my social impact endeavors.

5. S-T-A-N-F-O-R-D: Neighbor who? Find social impact allies! 

Although it is fulfilling, working in the social impact space can be exhausting. From navigating ethical dilemmas like privacy around refugee data, to witnessing horrific inequity in the criminal justice system, it is a journey that is impossible to make alone. Finding supportive friends and communities who are also working in the social impact space is key to getting through the tough moments. Whether it is through clubs or meeting people organically, make sure to develop a strong social impact community and support system. 

I found a fantastic community in the club, CS+Social Good, which I joined my frosh year. Many of my closest friends ended up being involved in the club. I especially appreciated the club’s diversity. A variety of majors from Public Policy, to Psychology, to CS were drawn to it and it was inspiring to see how everyone embraced “social good” in their own way; the alums of the club are also terrific mentors.

The lessons I have talked about so far focus on social impact in the Stanford journey. In the next installment of this article, I will highlight more lessons, with a focus on social impact beyond the Stanford experience, along with future recommendations and a list of resources.

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