The earliest thing I remember is my mom humming to herself as she cooked. The sunlight filtered through our backyard door into the kitchen and reflected off of her wire-frame glasses. My childhood was comfortable, not because of how much my parents made (they made ends meet, but not much further than that), but because of how much they, especially my mom, prioritized my growth and well-being.

It was later, though, that my upbringing began to stray far from that of a traditional immigrant family. Music lessons, tutoring, and sports filled my early childhood, all in the hopes of a future brighter than my parents.

Resilience at a young age

When I was in third grade, my mom unexpectedly passed. Without her, my dad decided it’d be best for himself to work overseas. Suddenly, I found myself, along with my 3 other siblings, without any of the parental support or motivation that I once had. Living with my grandparents was an exercise in resolve and independence, especially as my grandma sank into Alzheimer’s.

Going into my junior year, I had done well academically, thanks to the mindset my mom had instilled in me. Doing well academically wasn’t enough, however, because I was still at risk of falling through the cracks. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I possessed almost none of the interpersonal and relational skills I needed to get into college, let alone build a network and begin a professional career. That fall, I found the Social Impact Fellowship program through my counselor’s newsletter, and with hindsight, I now realize how profoundly it influenced my college and career trajectory.

Enter Close the Gap Foundation

I took a chance, and the founders at Close the Gap took a chance on me. In June 2019, I attended Close the Gap’s STEM mentorship program, Spark 2019. There, I met Tai Tran, who sought to uplift low-income students through professional development workshops, talks from notable figures in the technology world, and ongoing mentorship. I later found out that CTG had taken LinkedIn's Plus One pledge, committing themselves to level the playing field for low-income students like myself by opening up their networks to us.

Fellowship Orientation Day in June 2019 at Google's Community Space San Francisco

During Orientation Day at Google’s Community Space in San Francisco, we had workshops that helped us overcome imposter syndrome, develop effective public speaking, and cultivate personal branding. I was introduced to ideas I didn’t even know existed, and I had the opportunity to have chats with guest speakers during intermissions. The interactions I had with those speakers and my cohort were some of the most memorable parts of the program for me.

After the Fellowship

With this first exposure to networking, I received frank and actionable advice to immediately improve my self-presentation. After orientation day, I was paired with a mentor, Kerem Kazan, who worked with me to further build self-confidence and prepare specifically for a career in tech.

I entered my senior year feeling confident to explore new leadership opportunities, including at Mission Bit, where I’m now President of the Student Advisory Board. With my experience at Close the Gap's Social Impact Fellowship under my belt, my college application felt much more robust. I began applying to colleges like UCB, UCLA, and Stanford last fall and was eagerly waiting to hear back from these schools.

Fast forward to December 6th, and I was eagerly refreshing my portal to check my Stanford decision, surrounded by my best friends. Opening the decision, I was in disbelief to have been accepted to the Stanford Class of 2024!

Paying it forward to move forward

Earlier this month, I officially confirmed my acceptance at Stanford University to study Computer Science. To think that I’m now part of the Stanford Class of 2024 is nothing short of a dream. What’s more exciting is the increased opportunity potentially available to me now due to the soft skills and network I’ve built from Close the Gap Foundation. Because of the tireless work that Tai, Jesse, and the rest of the CTG team have done, I am where I am today.

To give back, I’ve started as an Operations Intern at CTG, and through my position, I’m lending my newfound time (can’t escape senioritis), blessings, and resources to send future scholars further. As an Operations Intern this spring and upcoming summer, I will be working with the Close the Gap team to develop a technical STEM curriculum, and beyond that, I’ll be empowering scholars through code in any way I can.

Parting thoughts

Although I still have flashes of imposter syndrome, which I’m sure won’t be helped by being at Stanford, I’m comfortable knowing that I have a strong network to fall back on, draw advice from, and give back to.

I’m incredibly excited for the next 4 years, which I’m sure will be filled with growth, challenges, and experiences with some of the brightest people I’ll ever meet, as I explore a career in tech. If you know of any tech opportunities for next summer, or would just like to connect, please reach out!

Alexander Peng

Alexander is a first year Computer Science major at Stanford University. He is committed to solving inequalities and helping others succeed. In the future, he hopes to use his interests in product management and software engineering to continue to level the playing field and help others.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Stanford University

This article was originally published on Alex's LinkedIn Post.