Karelys López Rivera, Undergraduate Student Representative

Karelys López Rivera, Undergraduate Student Representative

Computer Science and Engineering Student

Charting Her Own Path: Puerto Rican Public School Student Becomes Rising Technological Star

When Karelys received her university acceptance letter, she anticipated a scene similar to ‘the ones in the movies, where everyone’s happily screaming and excited.’ However, the reception she received was very different. “My family couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to stay at home and get a regular job.” After shedding a few tears of disappointment, Karelys moved on. However, it wasn’t until she connected with friends who had also received acceptance letters that she felt validated in celebrating her accomplishment.

Karelys’ story begins as a young girl growing up in Puerto Rico. Her aunt gave her a floppy disk containing games and puzzles involving math, science, and logic. Karelys recollects playing on it ‘until the day it broke.’ The logic involved in computer games fascinated her.

Karelys continued her education at a Puerto Rican public high school. “It was a vocational school,” she explained. “You were equipped with the skills to perform a specific job, such as accounting.” Higher education was considered an unrealistic privilege. Karelys did not expect to go to university. “No one in my family had (gone).” But fate, in the form of Professor Nayda Santiago, was about to change all that.

When the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez hosted “Women in Engineering Week, Professor Santiago introduced students to Machine Learning and Cyber Security. Karelys was fascinated. “I love this! How can I get into this area and learn more?”

Professor Santiago saw Karelys’ potential and encouraged her to apply to university. It took Karelys’ family some time to get used to the idea of her leaving home to pursue a Computer Science (CS) degree but they now demonstrate an increased level of support and understanding.

Although she feels at home now, Karelys candidly admits that her first year at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez was a challenge. “I struggled.” Several of her peers came from private high schools, which gave them more knowledge and exposure. Karelys had to cope with a steep learning curve.

I couldn’t compare my education with theirs. They had been doing Calculus 2 while I had only gone as far as Pre-Calculus. My education suddenly felt mediocre. Physics, Chemistry, English — these subjects were basic for my peers but ‘out of this world’ for me.

Karelys recognized that she was becoming trapped in a fixed mindset with a negative internal narrative. “Everyone is smarter than I am. I’m frustrated by my inability to keep up. It’s unfair that I don’t have the same privileges as my new peers.

It took Karelys some time to grasp the value of the following advice she had received. “You don’t have to know everything.”

I discovered that I can make it work. It may take me longer and I need to have the time and patience to accept that. Education is not about who finishes first. The real goal is continuous learning. Do what works for you, not for others.

Karelys is now a rising junior, leading Coding Clubs on her campus. Her goal is to “help students improve their coding skills and ace their technical interviews by reviewing computer science fundamentals and solving problems using the IDEAL method.”

Leading Coding Clubs has been amazing. I’ve become well-known as one of the female representatives of my department. I want to show female students not to be afraid of Computer Science, like I was at first. Overcoming impostor syndrome was initially frightening but also liberating. I started saying to myself, ‘I can do this. I can make it to the top.’

Karelys recalls the growth she experienced during her internship at J.P. Morgan Chase.

I had an irrational fear of internships. I was afraid I would get fired on the first day. What actually happened was, my manager gave me regular feedback and I improved each week. At the end of the internship, I thought to myself, ‘I actually did it!’

One of Karelys’ interviews illustrates how she successfully transformed a negative experience into meaningful, sustainable change.

The interviewer said to me, ‘You don’t look like you are capable of doing the kind of research you’ve listed on your resume.’ He didn’t believe that I was telling the truth.

This experience left Karelys feeling dejected. When she shared her experience with Professor Santiago, she gave Karelys the following pithy advice:

Yes, you are a woman. You haven’t yet seen what you are capable of. But I have. You are going to change someone’s life. We need more women like you in Computer Science to inspire the next generation of Puerto Ricans.
You are going to get there. Don’t let anyone prevent you. Recognize that those statements are just words. Take a moment, breathe and keep pushing. Instead of dwelling on the fact that one person could not see your value, reflect instead on how far you’ve come.

Karelys now conducts mock interviews on campus so that her peers can be better prepared than she was. She also educates them on actionable steps they can take after interviews.

You have to stand up for yourself. It is both your right and your responsibility to call that individual out to Human Resources. Because if we don’t take steps to prevent it, the sad truth is that it will keep happening.

One of Karelys’ most memorable experiences is being selected for the Google Tech Exchange Program.

“Traveling from the small island of Puerto Rico to Mountain View, California felt surreal. For the first couple of days, I kept telling my friends, ‘This is a dream and we’re all going to wake up soon.” At the conclusion of the program, Karelys had the opportunity to give a closing address to an audience of 120.

Karelys’ goal is to become a Product Manager. “What is a problem that technology hasn’t yet solved?” She reminds female technologists that their unique voices play a key role in improving the products they create.

Never underestimate your work and your value. Women need to celebrate our contributions to the field of technology. What we are doing is great and we need to increase visibility. We are capable of conquering the world. As another Puerto Rican face, I can inspire others like me to join. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to represent my country and contribute to my community.

Karelys López Rivera is the new undergraduate student representative for the AnitaB.org board of trustees. This story was written by Saranya Murthy, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Support our mission to celebrate more amazing women in tech, like the one featured here, by donating to AnitaB.org.