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Photo courtesy: Nicole Valencia Tello CC’18

Growth through Challenge and Change

"I have grown the most because of the people I’ve been able to meet and my intellectual curiosity thrives because I am in a place where everyone is just as, if not more, curious than me."—Nicole Valencia Tello CC’18

Meet Nicole Valencia Tello CC’18, a computer science major from Queens, NY. While at Columbia College, Valencia Tello co-founded the University’s first-ever chapter of Girls Who Code, an organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. She was also involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship; Columbia Japan Society, an undergraduate organization that uses food-related events, arts and media showcasing, and educational lectures to foster an appreciation for Japan’s blend of tradition and modernity; and Columbia PorColombia, which promotes Colombia through academic, culture, philanthropy and social initiatives.

What are your favorite memories from your time at Columbia College?

The key thing I will take away from my time at the College is that, while our institution is truly remarkable and our campus full of history and wonder, it’s not the buildings or the classes that give it it’s worth, but the people who you meet.

My favorite memory — a small snapshot of a bigger anecdote — demonstrates that. One of the many times I had late nights working on a programming assignment, I went to a friend’s floor lounge. We were different majors and were taking different classes but [home]work buddies are the best buddies. We talked about classical music and astrophysics...the former I deeply enjoy, the latter I had no idea about, but it was my friend’s major. I learned a lot from that conversation and that’s what I enjoyed the most about my Columbia College experience — being able to have so many varied and intellectual individuals across disciplines. Hearing what makes them passionate about their respective fields, classes or even extracurriculars that are entirely different from my own, not only heightened my awareness of the plethora of options that comprise the human experience, but also inspired and enlightened me.

I have grown the most because of the people I’ve been able to meet and my intellectual curiosity thrives because I am in a place where everyone is just as, if not more, curious than me. Conversations have fueled my love for my Columbia experience these four years and all the remarkable people I have been able to meet.

What surprised you most about your Columbia College experience?

What surprised me most was how much I would struggle over the course of my college career. Like many of my peers, I was top of my graduating class in high school and was used to getting high grades. However, I don’t believe I was fully prepared for the continued rigor and frustration I would face in my major. I went to a small public high school and am also a first-generation college student. And while I am eternally grateful for the resources and support I found in navigating the uncharted waters of college that I received through the Academic Success Program and also First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (founded my first year); it felt like I was playing a game I didn’t even know existed and I had to quickly adapt in order to not lose.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t change any of my choices — neither the college I chose, nor my major. Precisely because of that struggle, my university experience has been a humbling experience. My “Girls Who Code” instructor in high school, who taught me to code during the “Girls Who Code” Summer Immersion Program, told me that if you are the smartest person in a room, you are in the wrong room. I clearly chose the right room to be in by choosing Columbia College. I have been challenged and have continually sought to better myself, both as an individual and in knowledge, in order to persist in my chosen major, which does not come easily to me.

I could have chosen a major which would’ve given me A’s easily, but it wouldn’t have pushed me and forced me to learn to deal with frustration, or make me as excited about my future as my computer science major does. My college experience may not have been the easiest but it certainly has been the most rewarding and made me a bolder and more confident human being.

How has your experience prepared you for your post-graduate plans?

Columbia College has prepared me by giving me experience in handling high-pressure and high-stress environments, as well as the invaluable leadership experience I attained through co-founding my own Girls Who Code club during my first-year. As a Girls Who Code alumna, I came into the College with a desire to create a chapter of the organization, which ended up being the University’s first. It was a bold initiative, especially taking this on as a first-year who wasn’t sure how to navigate the University. Through our club, we teach ninth- to twelfth-grade high school girls how to code in a fun, engaging and supportive environment. We recruit students from the nearby under-represented communities as well as throughout the five boroughs. Since that time, our club has grown from our first class with ten students, to two classrooms of 25 students. The club is the proudest achievement of my Columbia career — my development as a leader and individual would not have occurred if not for this experience. I have gained people and time-management skills that come from building something from the ground up and learning from both successes and mistakes.

What will you miss most about Columbia College?

What I’ll miss the most is being in an environment where I feel there is always one more class I wish I could take, an extracurricular I wasn’t able to dedicate time to and professors and fellow students I would like to spend more time absorbing the wisdom from. There are so many choices and paths one’s life can take while at the College… four years is not enough time to fully relish all that I could do at this institution. I am truly an academic to the core, and will miss being in a place where my sole expectation is to learn.

What are your post-graduation plans?

Post-graduation I hope to do a bit of traveling. Because I didn’t study abroad (though I did compete in a hackathon abroad), I would like to spend some time exploring the world beyond the United States and Colombia, the only two countries I have ever fully known as a Colombian-American.

After traveling, I plan on working in the technology industry for three to five years, perhaps a bit more depending on how interested and invested I feel in the products I’m working on, before transitioning into my true ambition: computer science education reform.

I’m very passionate about computer science education (as evidenced by co-founding a club dedicated to decreasing the gender gap in computer science and teaching girls how to code) and would like to work on building more inclusive curriculum for different types of learners or computer science policy reform. I have often thought that if I go for a masters, it would be in education for this purpose. Because computer science is such a burgeoning field, I believe the way we teach it cannot fall behind either. My mentality is simple: I do not believe we can expect diversity in our field if we do not diversify our educational practices. Both my experience as a computer science major, as well as having taught for two summers full-time with the Girls Who Code organization, have fueled this desire and I am excited to work on concrete ways on impacting change.

Published Friday May 11, 2018

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