The Knowledge That Keeps On Giving
As a kid, I loved games. It wasn’t always Super Mario Brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog. Sports, especially basketball, was a big part of my life too, and I loved games like Knockout, 21, and HORSE. But I had even more fun inventing games. Although many people already knew that the ground is lava, I came up with that idea on my own and added features, such as lava shoes and teleporting suits, to make the game more interesting. In school, my favorite activities also involved games. We had mystery-solving competitions, speed math, dodgeball, and many more. Even learning to type involved a game! Much of my early growth and development involved games and making learning fun, and I have always enjoyed learning and making games since my childhood.
Unfortunately, by high school, a recession led to my family moving to a small town whose high school was very… lacking. Very few of my teachers pushed and challenged me, so I had very little to do academically. As a result, I found I had a lot of time on my hands and started a basketball league to help underprivileged students stay off the streets during the summer… and so I could play for free in a really nice gym. But realizing I could pursue projects that benefited others as well as myself led me to develop a stronger interest in volunteering and community service.
When it was time to apply to universities, I knew the only schools I would apply to had to have three things: excellent academics, championship basketball, and passionate volunteering. School after school sent me pamphlets about their laurels. It was lame. I hadn’t even heard of some of them, so they clearly weren’t that good, and most of them were never even on ESPN. Duke University had continued to send me TIP mail, which made me feel like I was being recruited in a way, but there was nothing about attending Duke University. By the time Duke sent me information, I had a huge stack of self-praise. I had started to hate getting mail.
Duke had also sent a pamphlet. As I pulled it out of the envelope, I saw the cover featured students with the basketball players in front of some tents. I stared blankly for a few seconds, then finally decided to open it up. As I read, I was surprised. Duke did not mention its accomplishments. There was a lot of stuff Duke could have talked about, but instead, it was talking about the volunteering initiatives started by some students while they were tenting for the basketball games!
A school that was ranked near the top in academics and had recently won a basketball championship was more interested in telling me about student projects, such as digging wells in Uganda or tutoring local underprivileged students, that came from simple ideas in a cold tent. Against all the advice in the world, I only applied to one university.
However, being the son of immigrants in a small town that cared nothing for academics, I could not explore career paths until I arrived on campus. My parents pushed hard for me to become a doctor, and I completed the pre-med courses with little passion. I also explored the possibility of pursuing law and business, but both fields seemed too cutthroat and focused on benefiting from exploiting others. I wanted to find something that would let me impact others positively, something that would keep on giving.
During my continued exploration after college, which coincided with the Great Recession, I moved out to Palo Alto and found a job. Once again, I was just another cog in the machine, but it was different this time. Everywhere I went, I saw people working on social networks and mobile apps. I first thought little of it, but then a friend described a computer game he was planning. It would be a historical game about the Mongols that aimed to portray them impartially and allow each player to decide for themselves if Genghis Khan was a cruel barbarian worthy of his modern reputation or an enlightened ruler who allowed detractors to write negatively about him.
I was interested and wanted to help with the project, so he began to teach me some basic programming. As I became more and more interested, he began to invite me to talks, where I heard about Airbnb and Khan Academy. There’s a whole lot more to being a software engineer than I realized before. Here were successful people-oriented companies that cared about solving human issues. The flexibility of what software can do reached far beyond simply building social media apps. I could have a positive social impact on people through technology and start-ups. I decided to return to Duke and learn computer science so I could join others in finding technological solutions for problems that people face everyday.
Now that I’ve been back at Duke, I’ve seen very clearly the need to make learning fun again. While tutoring local underprivileged kids and talking with their teachers about the struggles of being underfunded and undervalued, I’ve realized that software engineering is a knowledge that keeps on giving. My future will be building games and apps that help make math and science fun for kids to learn so that they too can one day build their own projects to help those around them.