Chris's Journey from Student to Mentor

Person with disability using a laptop.

Chris's Journey from Student to Mentor

I believe that early work- and career-related experiences play crucial roles in people's abilities to have successful full-time careers, especially when they have a disability. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to do a number of different internships and attend conferences and professional workshops, which have given me the experience necessary to be successful in my career. Aside from gaining direct job-related skills, each activity has helped me further understand and refine the accommodations that I need, and has taught me methods for addressing various situations as they arise. In my K-12 education, both my parents and teachers identified many of the accommodations and adaptations that I needed as they noticed difficulties I was having or developed possible improvements to the way I was doing something. While this was effective early on, I knew it would not be practical in the long term because I must be prepared and able to plan ahead to be successful in life.

The summer before my junior year of high school, my involvement in the DO-IT Scholars program introduced me and the other students into a simulated college environment called Summer Study. It is a program designed to expose students to a college environment so that they may begin their preparation. Being on a college campus, problems that were previously non-issues emerged, such as dorm accessibility and transportation between buildings in a large area. I realized that additional planning was needed in order to ensure my routes were accessible, that I had enough time to travel between classes, and that accommodations were available for the classrooms I was going to be in. From this experience, I began to feel more confident with my knowledge and comfortable requesting accommodations, so my next challenge was to find work experience. I used the knowledge that I had previously gained about the type of accommodations I need, as well as the support available to me, and put them to the test as I began doing summer internships. Through a DO-IT online community, I found my first internship the summer after I graduated from high school. Fortunately it was with Microsoft, a large company that has years of experience arranging accommodations, so things went relatively smoothly. I had the opportunity to fine-tune some arrangements specific to my position; such as working on a whiteboard or taking notes in a meeting.

That fall, when I moved into the dorms as a college freshman, I was prepared and knew that I needed to be proactive and determine what accommodations I would need in order to be successful in my courses. In my lab courses, where I could not physically perform the actions myself, I was able to arrange lab partners or have a lab assistant complete the actions under my direction. The next summer I did an AccessSTEM-funded internship with a small group called Western Wireless. In 2006, the AccessComputing team formed. AccessComputing is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and DO-IT at the University of Washington. Through AccessComputing, I was able to communicate directly with peers and mentors interested in the field of computing through networking events and electronic discussions. I learned of a different internship through Microsoft from AccessComputing and decided to venture further from home to be an intern in Washington, DC. This presented a new set of challenges and involved complicated logistics but, from my prior experiences I felt prepared. Granted, there were some rough spots in the beginning: arranging for Personal Care Assistants (PCAs), transporting medical equipment, and arranging accommodations once I arrived, but things went extremely smoothly after the initial chaos. Although working for the government was not for me, I gained an entirely new skill set while traveling. This was utilized again the next summer when I traveled to Tokyo, supported by AccessSTEM, to assist DO-IT Japan. If I had not built up my internship experiences, I don't believe I would have felt comfortable enough to go and might have missed the opportunity.

Because I had built such a strong reputation as an AccessComputing leader and hard worker, DO-IT contacted me to lead Phase II workshops during the Summer Study program I had attended years earlier as a high school student. At the end of my third successful internship with Microsoft, I was offered a full-time position and have been at the company for more than two years. I am an active AccessComputing mentor who assists with outreach and speaks on panels regularly. The contacts I have made over the years and the experiences I have had through DO-IT have given me opportunities to build confidence, attend conferences and even guest lecture about my success.