Meenakshi Das (Meena), an international Computer Science student from India, advanced her programming career by studying Computer Science in the United States. She was selected as one of 12 recipients of the Google Lime Scholarship in North America in 2018 and was also invited for a 2 day scholars retreat at Google Headquarters in Mountain View in the summer to socialize with other scholarship winners and learn more about Google. Meena also gained practical experience at several tech companies in the U.S. We had the great opportunity to interview Meena and learn more about her studies in the U.S. as well as her adventures with companies such as Qualcomm and Microsoft.
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What is your disability?
I am an international student from India pursuing a Masters in Computer Science at Auburn University. I was diagnosed with a speech disability, specifically a stutter, at around age 5. My stutter caused me to have very low confidence and self-esteem throughout my childhood. I grew up introverted, and rarely spoke in class, and didn’t have many friends.
You have earned your Bachelor of Science and are currently pursuing your Master's degree in the United States. Tell us more about your studies in the U.S.
When I came in 2014 to pursue my Bachelors of science at Mississippi State University, I was excited to see the availability of resources like the disability support services to succeed. At that point, I decided that I wouldn’t let my disability define who I am. I knew I had to make an impact, so I started writing. I was aware of many prospective international students having questions about the process of applying to U.S. colleges. I wrote two blog posts on this topic which got published on an international student blog, following which I received messages from a few people who thanked me for those articles.
At that point, I realized I had made a difference. I became aware that leadership is not just about giving well-crafted speeches; it’s about making a positive impact and I had already done so by writing. A couple weeks after, I received a call from the Director of International Admissions at my university and she offered me a job to craft out an international student recruiting plan. This was the beginning of me becoming confident and believing in myself, and I have never looked back ever since.
I became aware that leadership is not just about giving well-crafted speeches; it’s about making a positive impact and I had already done so by writing.
How did you discover your interest in computer science?
I did not start out as a Computer Science major in school. I was always apprehensive about the field and thought only born geniuses could succeed in computer science. However, my perception was totally changed when I attended a programming workshop for fun and wrote my first program, successfully. I started watching programming tutorials online and ultimately changed my major to Computer Science. Today, I am proud to be one of the women computer science majors, with a disability, in the world. The flexibility of U.S. colleges which allowed me to change majors benefitted me so much.
When you started your Masters degree in Computer Science, you decided that you were interested in doing a project related to accessibility. Tell us about the project that you found.
I work on a collaborative project with the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop an inclusive application for disabled students to learn to code using Block-Based Programming(commonly used to teach kids to code) and Robotics. I am currently researching the usage of American Sign Language (ASL) to provide coding instruction to Deaf/Hard of Hearing Students. Other research in progress is designing techniques to make the application accessible to blind/visually impaired individuals since most block-based code applications are not accessible to screen-readers. This project is personal to my heart since I believe every individual should have access to learn computer science, regardless of their disability. This is only possible if we make these learning applications inclusive from the middle-school level.
What got you interested in accessibility issues?
As I progressed in my computer science degree, I noticed how underrepresented were the minorities like women and students with disabilities in computer science. After attending the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in my sophomore year, I realized the immense potential technology had to make our society more inclusive and accessible. I learned about a project which was experimenting with a fully audio method of teaching algebra to blind students, how AI-supported wearable devices could help the visually impaired navigate better, and application of the IBM Watson’s New Content classifier to help people with cognitive disabilities increase comprehension.
Disability inclusion and accessibility in technology has today emerged as a necessity of national importance.
These projects convinced me that technology with its immense prowess can change life for the better. Bringing people with disabilities into the tech workforce does not only create equal opportunities for all but also better equips the society to serve its diverse population. That’s when I decided to do something productive to encourage minorities to pursue technology careers. I started with an idea to conduct a workshop to teach programming to visually impaired students and contacted researchers who were working on developing tools for the same. My undergraduate advisor and I drafted a proposal to conduct the workshop, and we won the grant! We successfully conducted this workshop at the Clovernook Center for Visually Impaired in Memphis in 2018, using an accessible coding language called Quorum.
Most international students have the opportunity to gain practical experience in their field while studying in the U.S. You applied for "Curricular Practical Training (CPT)" and did an internship with Qualcomm. Will you tell us more about this?
It was an amazing experience. Qualcomm is a world leader in mobile technologies and they have an amazing software engineering internship program. The location of the internship was at their headquarters in San Diego, which has such beautiful beaches and scenery, and is my favorite city in the United States. I also gained amazing work experience working on a project of my interest, which improved my software development and personal skills.
Tell us about the internships that you did in Alabama. What did you learn?
I did the co-operative education program at Mississippi State University. Typically, it is a program where you intern with a company for alternate three terms. I worked for a telecommunications company named ADTRAN based in Huntsville, Alabama. In my first term, I worked on a software quality assurance team where I learned how to test software. For my second term, I was on a software development team where I worked on building microservices in Python. For my final term, I was placed on a research team where I helped develop machine learning models to troubleshoot networks. So, I got a taste of software testing, software development and research during my co-op experience. This experience made me very confident for my Qualcomm internship.
You found another internship with Microsoft which you will be doing this summer. What are you looking forward to accomplishing?
I am looking forward to further improving my software engineering skills and making connections across the company. Due to COVID-19, my internship was converted to a remote one. Not how I expected my summer would be, but it's right thing to do! Grateful to Microsoft for offering this virtual internship experience and honoring our offers.
Why do you think it’s important to gain work experience in addition to pursuing your academic program in the United States?
International students have the benefit of CPT - so I encourage every international student to use it. Coursework and classes can only provide practical experience to an extent; but an internship can really hone the skills learned at school. Besides, you learn financial management, live in a different American city, and experience corporate life.
Do you have advice for other international students with disabilities coming to study in the U.S. related to the benefits you’ve shared from gaining work experience?
I would say go for it, and not be afraid to ask for accommodations. If you are from a developing country, it is common to not have knowledge about the right accommodation process, but in a developed country like the USA, the process of asking for accommodations is quite streamlined.
You can take this knowledge and experience back to your home country and make an impact.