Navigating College And Career As First-Gen Girl Geeks: Insights From CCPA Career Panel of Women in Tech

October 4, 2023
girl geek x ccpa career panel vanessa Vanessa magana an nguyen molly dubow bryanna valdivia elizabeth orpina hero

Girl Geek X continues its ongoing partnership with Oakland Public Education Fund to support Coliseum College Prep Academy. Girl Geek X volunteers actively engage with the local school community to illuminate the journeys of women in technology who have overcome diverse challenges to achieve successful careers in fields ranging from art and design to engineering and cybersecurity.

On Wednesday, October 4, 2023, Girl Geek X community members volunteered to share career advice with the senior class at CCPA in East Oakland, California.

An Nguyen (Lead Product Designer at Medallia), Molly Dubow (Customer Success Leader most recently at Webex), Bryanna Valdivia (Software Engineer at Flexport), and Elizabeth Orpina (Security Awareness & Education Manager at GitHub) spoke on a career panel to share their path from high school to successful careers in the tech sector. They offered valuable advice to students.

Below are key takeaways from the college and career panel discussion:

girl geek x ccpa career panel vanessa Vanessa magana an nguyen molly dubow bryanna valdivia elizabeth orpina

Girl Geek X CCPA Career Panel moderated by Vanessa Magaña with An Nguyen, Molly Dubow, Bryanna Valdivia, and Elizabeth Orpina speaking as first-generation students now working in the technology industry.

#1 – Diverse Backgrounds and Successful Paths to Tech

Panelists highlighted their diverse backgrounds and unconventional routes into the tech industry. The first-gen students shared their experiences with navigating financial aid and the school-to-tech-job trajectory!

An Nguyen shared her background of being a self-funded college student who pursued education while working multiple jobs. She emphasized the need to communicate and gain trust from family when pursuing non-traditional careers like design (specifically, UX design and now product design. She encouraged students to study what interests them, and believes “education is there for you to study to be as good as that ‘naturally good’ person.” 

Molly Dubow wishes she knew about paid tech internships during her high school days, stressing the significance of early awareness about opportunities. She encouraged students to take advantage of the college opportunity to leave home for a new experience, and pondered if junior college could have been a better step for her.

Bryanna Valdivia, the first in her family to attend college, described how a coding bootcamp propelled her into a tech role at a startup, emphasizing the effectiveness of networking through alumni at her bootcamp Hack Reactor that landed her first job in tech one month after completing the coding bootcamp. She has since paid off her student loans. Sstartups are a good way to break into the tech industry.

Elizabeth Orpina, whose entry into tech was facilitated by a volunteer opportunity while working at a foundation, revealed the importance of seizing unexpected pathways to success. She started working in tech at Autodesk, first as a contractor and then in a full-time capacity, before joining GitHub (a Microsoft company) where she is working now. in

#2 – Overcoming Financial Challenges and Scholarships

Addressing financial challenges, the panelists shared their experiences with loans and scholarships. Bryanna Valdivia explained that FAFSA gave a lot, and she took out loans to complete her education. She expressed the wish to have applied for more scholarships in high school and in every year of college.

Elizabeth Orpina advised students to opt for federally-funded loans over private ones, and highlighted the opportunity for additional grants for first-generation college students. Her loans covered books and housing, and her jobs “paid for the fun stuff” in college.

An Nguyen encouraged students to apply for all available scholarships, emphasizing the potential for unexpected opportunities.

Molly Dubow stressed the importance of seeking help and utilizing the myriad resources available to alleviate financial burdens. She underlined that students are welcome to connect with panelists on LinkedIn, the professional social network, so they can better ask questions and seek referrals in the future.

#3 – Students to Chart Unique Paths with Guidance, Pursue Interests

During the panel, the speakers offered advice to students navigating their paths. Molly Dubow encouraged students to consider junior colleges as an affordable and valuable starting point in higher education.

An Nguyen emphasized the importance of courage in pursuing one’s passion and interests from an early age. She underlined that education is just studying your interests, so pursue your interests! Her career in product design came after she initially pursuing a computer science degree; it was then she realized that she loved the design side of engineering, not the coding side.

Bryanna Valdivia advised against excessive stress during the transition from high school to college and emphasized focusing on long-term goals.

Elizabeth Orpina encouraged students to make decisions based on what’s best for them, urging them to listen to respected individuals rather than conforming to immediate circles.

#4 – Balancing Family and Career, Finding a Community

An Nguyen, currently on her maternity leave, highlighted the challenges faced by caregivers in the tech industry. She stressed the significance of support groups and employee resource groups for caretakers. Addressing ageism as well, she stressed the importance of finding allies and coworkers who understand and support one’s journey.

Both Molly Dubow and Bryanna Valdivia expressed feelings of isolation as first-generation college students and women. Molly Dubow underscored the importance of not allowing one’s voice to be silenced and encouraged finding ways to communicate effectively, even when faced with gender bias. Bryanna Valdivia advocated for joining employee resource groups (ERGs) and seeking connections beyond one’s immediate team to foster a sense of community and support.

Elizabeth Orpina emphasized the role of team and company diversity in creating an inclusive work environment, urging students to seek companies that value and promote diversity and inclusion.

In conclusion, the CCPA Career Panel offered invaluable insights into the unique journeys of successful tech professionals. The advice and experiences shared by the panelists will undoubtedly serve as a beacon of guidance for students and volunteers navigating their career paths in the tech industry.

girl geek x ccpa career panel vanessa magana molly dubow bryanna valdivia elizabeth orpina an nguyen

Girl Geek X CCPA Career Panel (from left): Molly Dubow, Vanessa Magana, Bryanna Valdivia, Elizabeth Orpina, and An Nguyen.

Special thank you to Shelly Lopez and Alicia Parise at Oakland Public Education Fund, the nonprofit that organizes programs with the Oakland public schools to bring students, educators and the local community together for maximum impact. You can still sign up for Girl Geek X Oakland Education Fund volunteer events this year – bring a friend!

Share this