Skip to main content

“It’s so important for anyone to feel seen and to be heard”: Allen School’s Aerin Malana champions inclusivity and the visibility of first gen students

Our latest Allen School undergraduate student spotlight features Aerin Malana, a sophomore from Kent, Washington, majoring in computer science with a diversity minor. Malana has a passion for advocacy and equity, specifically in tech, and has become a leader in inclusivity at the Allen School. She serves as vice chair of the Association for Computing Machinery for Women (ACM-W) and has co-founded Gen1, an organization for first generation Allen School students. Despite the fact that the University of Washington has moved classes online due to COVID-19, Malana is still actively engaged with both groups, using video conferencing to continue programming for ACM-W and preparing for the rollout of Gen1 in the fall quarter.

Allen School: What do you enjoy about being in ACM-W and what motivated you to become vice chair?

Aerin Malana: Being in ACM-W was a great starting point for my involvement in the Allen School, as it intersected with my interest in advocacy for diversity in tech. I get to work with a great group of women; we all encourage each other to remember our mission of advocating for diversity in tech, as well as to always be the best we can be. I became an associate officer for ACM-W halfway through my freshman year. The experiences I gained and the people I met in my first year through ACM-W not only helped me to further my passion for advocacy, but also helped me to understand how amazingly complex our Allen School community is. I decided to come back this year as Vice Chair, where I could take on a bigger leadership role in the organization. 

Allen School: In that leadership role, what are some goals you hope to accomplish? 

AM: I hope to help ACM-W push for more awareness and increase advocacy for issues that gender minorities face in tech (women, nonbinary folx, etc.). We really aim to help community members question certain biases we’ve grown accustomed to socially and how we can undo those biases in ourselves and in our communities. I also hope to help more of our community members understand the concept of intersectionality and how that plays into each of our experiences with the world and each other. It’s important that we all understand that aspects of our identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, economic class, etc.) do not operate separately, rather they intersect, overlap, and impact you, as an individual, as well as how you interact in institutions. 

Allen School: How do you hope to make computer science more diverse and inclusive, and how is your diversity minor helping you to do that?

AM: While there has been an increase of women, people of color, and other marginalized communities in our institutions, there is often a lack of support for them and a lack of effort to retain them in these spaces. It’s important for all of us to ask the question of why that is. Why isn’t our department or workforce a true reflection of our people? Why aren’t the resources that lead to success truly accessible to everyone? Do the amazing things we build reflect the people that use these things and the people that will be affected by them? If the answer is no, we have to understand why that is and the many active ways we can include every single voice and identity into these institutions and amplify them.

I’m hoping to make diversity and inclusivity more of a focal point in computer science by giving opportunities for the Allen School community to understand how it impacts everything they do, from the way they write code to the way they speak with fellow CSE students. In ACM-W, we have so many events to help students understand diversity in their space: quarterly diversity discussions, allyship panels, impostor syndrome talks, etc. I’m also hoping to make diversity and inclusivity more of a focal point by helping others understand where prejudices and biases in our field come from and how we can be aware of our biases.

My diversity minor helps me in understanding the institutions our everyday life is founded on, how they are intrinsically linked to the marginalization of certain communities, and how I can apply that knowledge specifically to computer science, where our work impacts everyone. 

Allen School: You’re also forming an Allen School organization for first generation students, Gen1. Why is this important to you?

AM: When I first came to UW, I was the only person in my circle of friends and acquaintances that identified as first gen; I was the first in my family to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in the U.S. It wasn’t until an entire year later, when I had a conversation with two of my friends who also identified as first gen, where I realized this community was there, it was just invisible.

We discussed the fact that there was a lack of resources and help for first generation students in a program where everyone is already connected to someone in industry or knows the ins and outs of this institution. They also felt like they were the only people in their entire social circle that were first gen, and it wasn’t until we started having active conversations surrounding this part of our identity that we realized we weren’t alone.

It’s so important for anyone to feel seen and to be heard. When you don’t have a visible community that you know is there for you and can help you succeed, it’s incredibly hard to keep up with others who don’t understand your struggle. It’s important to have a club for first generation students in the Allen School because I understand how hard it is to navigate an institution when you need to figure out everything for yourself, especially in the CSE community. There are so many others out there in the program that feel the same way but don’t know anyone else who shares their experience. With the creation of this club, we hope that we can build a visible community of amazing first gen students to share all of our experiences and support all of our ambitions.

Allen School: Why did you choose to study computer science?

AM: I didn’t necessarily choose computer science, I actually happened to stumble upon it. By the beginning of my senior year in high school, I knew I had to pick a major to apply to schools with. I had no clue what to do. I “flipped a coin” between another major and computer science, and luckily it landed on computer science. I applied to schools as a CS major very blindly, and it wasn’t until after application deadlines that I took my first programming class. Soon after, I fell in love with it. The combination of logical thinking, problem solving, and space for creativity and flexibility that CS offered interested me so much. 

Allen School: What do you like most about being in the Allen School?

AM: I enjoy so many things about this school, but I would have to say that I love the people the most. The staff and faculty of this school really love what they’re doing and it shows immensely. I absolutely love getting to work closely with lecturers, who further my passion for educating our communities, and working with advisers, who help affirm and push my drive to affect positive change in the program.

I also love getting to interact with my peers in the Allen School community. I get to learn so much from fellow students with different perspectives and I have the ability to create amazing things with them, both in the classroom and in the community.

Thanks to Aerin for her advocacy and her commitment to lifting up the voices of first gen students in our school!