Tech for social good at Stanford: Seeing the forest for the trees, Part 2

Dec. 7, 2022, 9:42 p.m.

This is a continuation of part one of a series on “technology for social good at Stanford,” featuring a guide with recommendations and list of resources based on lessons at Stanford.

Lessons continued

6. From SNGs and beyond: Index on mentorship

Mentorship is an invaluable piece in the social impact space. Work can sometimes feel chaotic, and without proper guidance, you can feel like a headless chicken, especially if it is your first time working in the space. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Focus on mentorship when evaluating social impact opportunities. If two opportunities are similar, pick the one with better mentorship. 
  • Always view interviews as a two-way street: it is a chance for the interviewer to get to know you, but also for you to evaluate the opportunity and the interviewer themselves. A question I always like to ask is “what do avenues of mentorship look like, and if I am stuck on a problem, who can I go to for guidance?”
  • Be creative in finding mentors. For example, if you know that the nonprofit you are deeply passionate about working with does not have good avenues for mentorship, try to find a professor or external organization that can provide you with good mentorship.
  • Remember that good mentorship is about both the ability and availability of the mentor. There’s no point in having a well-renowned mentor if they are too busy to help you. 

During my sophomore year, I was debating between two labs for my first AI research opportunity. One was more established but had just one PhD student, who, while very talented, seemed to have a lot on his plate. While the other lab was less established, I was touched upon seeing that three PhD students showed up to my interview. I picked the less established lab and never looked back: it became my foray into AI + climate research and inspired my current North Star in working at the intersection of AI and climate. 

7. Beyond tech: Lead and learn with humility 

Too often here at Stanford and Silicon Valley, we can be guilty of having a “Tech Savior Complex,” thinking technology is the solution to every problem, that we can parachute into any setting and solve issues with an app. It is important to recognize that solutions to societal problems can often involve little or no tech. Be humble and know that, as technologists, we can help solve problems and be part of the solution rather than serve as the entire solution. Most importantly, value and actively seek out different perspectives and disciplines with equal respect: embrace systems thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration. Lead and learn with humility. Make sure to center and always uplift the voices of the community you are aiming to serve. The Haas Center’s Principles of Ethical and Effective Service are a great framework to operationalize this.

During my senior year, I worked on a final project for CS 329S: “Machine Learning System Design” that automatically recognizes and transcribes American Sign Language (ASL) using AI for video conferencing tools, like Zoom. We realized that existing datasets were limited and not representative. These principles inspired us to interview several ASL speakers and ultimately construct our own dataset that was far more diverse. We thus built a more inclusive solution that performed significantly better. 

8. Shop ‘til you drop: Figure out your desired balance between technological rigor and social impact

For some, prioritizing technological rigor is more important. For others, social impact matters more, and they are willing to compromise on technological rigor. Figure out what is important to you and what excites you most by exploring both ends of the spectrum.

As a frosh, you will likely start off with less technological rigor (e.g. building updates to an app or working on backend APIs for services), so you can use this as an opportunity to maximize societal impact as you build up your technical muscle. As you mature technically, try out academic research (e.g. cutting-edge AI research) in a social impact domain (e.g. Climate, Healthcare, Poverty — we have great options to choose from on campus) where the direct social impact is less tangible or slower, to see how you like it. Exploring both ends of the spectrum will help you figure out what you enjoy and value most.

It doesn’t have to strictly be a tradeoff. For example, I explored the full spectrum from my Cardinal Quarter at Tarjimly (lower tech rigor, high direct social impact) to an internship working on Machine Learning Interpretability to help with safety (high-tech rigor, lesser direct social impact). At the end of college, I learned that I value both deep, direct social impact and deep tech rigor. I now filter for opportunities accordingly and this led me to the AI + climate space, which to me is the perfect nexus of high-tech rigor and high impact. There is no perfect balance; it is up to you to find what works best for you.

 9.  You will always be a tree: Be an agent of change wherever you go 

One of the biggest decisions we face is our choice of employment right out of college. It is important to acknowledge that working in an impact-driven career straightaway requires privilege and to be respectful of people’s backgrounds and contexts. For example, someone who must support their parents and siblings financially may have no choice but to pursue a career that initially optimizes for financial security.

Explore widely and think critically about what you value. There doesn’t always have to be a tradeoff between financial security and impact: there are increasingly more jobs and opportunities that compensate similarly to conventional jobs in tech and are impact driven. Most importantly, know that you can be an agent of change wherever you go. By having an undergraduate experience where you have meaningfully used your tech skills for good, you can bring that mindset to any organization and be an internal changemaker.

My early experiences at Stanford influence me to bring a social impact lens to all my endeavors. The summer after my junior year, I interned at a big tech company (Microsoft) to try that experience and hopefully leverage their resources for social impact. Knowing that I was working on a Natural Language Processing (NLP) team related to writing, I set up a call with my manager in advance of my internship and got permission to work on my own project related to helping people with dyslexia. I was able to use their resources to easily set up a User Study, and interview many people who have dyslexia within the first week of my internship. This inspired me to build a product that helps all users, especially those with dyslexia, write more easily, which will impact millions of people daily.

I also embraced the second lesson from my first article and used my flex quarter that same summer to take Cognitive Neuroscience, through which I dedicated my final project to understanding the neurobiological basis of dyslexia and this helped better inform the product I built. Thinking back to my first lesson, I would have never had the courage and thoughtfulness to pursue a project like that at a big tech company as an intern had it not been for my Cardinal Quarter at Tarjimly and for the class CHEMENG 90Q: “Dare to Care: Compassionate Design,” which encourages me to bring the inclusive design to all my endeavors.

Looking ahead: Making tech for good the norm

Creating a cultural shift isn’t easy. Here are some key avenues that I have advocated for in various capacities during my time on campus and which we need to continue to build on: 

  • Expanding Haas Center Summer Fellowships: We need more funding. Demand from students for a lot of opportunities continues to outpace the availability of funding for these opportunities. The new frosh curriculum, COLLEGE, could include an experiential public service opportunity in lieu of the last quarter — such as through a Cardinal Quarter over the summer — which can make public service a distinctive part and core tenet of the Stanford experience.
  • Departmental recognition and having social impact courses count for the major: A lot of social impact courses don’t count for the major and can sometimes even be mistaken for lacking rigor. Students should not have to go out of their way to pursue these courses, especially those with more demanding majors; rather, we should be able to pursue these opportunities while meeting major requirements.
  • Cross-Discipline Excellence: We need ways for students to work across disciplines more easily. One such way could be Senior Seminars, SeniorSems, if you will, that bring students across majors to work on important societal problems such as climate change and healthcare. This would enable students to work with their peers across disciplines and serve as a fulfilling end to the undergraduate experience. It can be modeled after the IntroSem program, and faculty can select students for their classes to ensure there is diversity across majors and backgrounds.

List of clubs, opportunities and classes

This is by no means an exhaustive list but is simply a summary of great clubs, classes and opportunities I have either directly been involved with or have observed as being especially impactful. 

Clubs:

Opportunities:

Classes:

  • CS51/CS52: “CS+Social Good Studio”
  • CHEMENG 90Q: “Dare to Care: Compassionate Design”
  • PWR 2GMF: “Immigration Nation: Rhetoric Up Against the Wall”
  • EDUC 193A: “Listen Up! Core Peer Counseling Skills”
  • EDUC 377C:” Philanthropy, Inclusivity and Leadership”
  • CS 182: “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change”
  • ENVRES 221: “New Frontiers and Opportunities in Sustainability”
  • PSYCH 70: “Self and Society: Introduction to Social Psychology”
  • PSYCH 50: “Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience”
  • SUST 210: “Pursuing Sustainability: Managing Complex Social Environmental Systems”
  • CS 325B: “Data for Sustainable Development”
  • EARTHSYS 213: “Hacking for Climate and Sustainability”

I am deeply grateful for my Stanford experience and the opportunities to make social impact a core tenet of my journey. While we have witnessed strong growth and increasing vibrancy in the tech-for-good ecosystem, we are yet to realize its full potential. 

I write this article to pay forward all the wisdom I have received and move the conversation forward on making tech-for-good the norm, with tangible advice, actions and resources. As we look ahead and become more cognizant of issues before us, from climate change to political polarization, we need, now more than ever, a diverse set of disciplines working on the defining problems of our time. From college and beyond, social impact needs to be an integral part of our journeys, rather than left for the end.

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