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Isaiah Sanders: Giving back and making an impact

Isaiah’s passion for helping those around him started early. He supported underprivileged youth and has been an inspirational speaker to high school and college students.
Isaiah Sanders speaks at a youth workshop. | Photos courtesy of Isaiah Sanders

Meet Isaiah Sanders, a first-year Master’s student in MS&E with a focus in Computational Social Science.

With his degree in MS&E, Isaiah hopes to focus on social enterprise and help minority communities. Specifically, he intends to help provide for people who have less access to education, and to change the narratives around what they can become. 

“I want to help change that narrative. I think an MS&E degree helps me do that because I can show people, no—we can be engineers, we can be leaders, we can be CEOs, we can do these other things too. And we can do this successfully.”

To create that impact, he’ll help make sure that children are receiving the mentoring, nurturing, care and compassion that they deserve, and also provide resources for parents to feel bold and strong enough to continue to lead their households in impactful ways.

Below are excerpts taken from Isaiah's video interview, which is also included after the text.

From the United States Air Force Academy to Stanford

I pretty much grew up in Colorado, but we moved around a little bit because my dad was military. So I was actually born on base at the United States Air Force Academy, and that's where I graduated from with my undergraduate degree. The cool thing about this is that it's on my birth certificate and my diploma now, so it kind of all came full circle. 

Now, I have this opportunity to come to Stanford to earn a Master's degree and exercise the last bit of eligibility on the football team too, so I'm excited about the next year and a half.

Pathway to MS&E

As a kid, I was always interested in the way that things work. I remember watching TV and there was a show called How it Works. It showed you just simple little products that we use and how they manufactured them. And that always interested me.

At one point, I really thought about being a mechanical engineer, and when I arrived at the Academy I realized there's a few other challenges here that I want to tackle too. I also knew I had interest in the business world, and I was thinking about pursuing a management degree.

I was fortunate enough to be able to do pretty well in my first academic year at the Academy, so I felt I could handle something more challenging in the engineering realm but maybe somewhere in the middle, so Systems Engineering was where I landed at the Academy. Systems Engineering is more of a breadth than a depth in concentration, but that helped pull all the different pieces together. In that degree, I focused on Human Factors—I was interested in the behavioral science around products with an engineering background. 

The MS&E program helps bridge that gap between some of the engineering principles and lens and perspective that I've gained already, and the entrepreneurial business side that I still want to pursue down the road.

My long term goal is to eventually come back and earn an MBA degree so I can be involved in social enterprises to help minority communities, in particular.

Computational Social Science for the good of society

The computational aspect of it is very much the engineering part of me, of who I am and how I think, how I process, how I optimize things, and how we can make things better for people. 

The social sciences piece is about looking at those relationships, looking at society, looking at how people connect, which is an area that I've been very interested in. 

I feel like unity has been a big mantle in my life, in my relationships and the work that I've done with nonprofits and ministries. I can put those two together in a degree and look at the computational way and make things better for people in society. 

Impact of non-profit experiences

Panelists sit on a purple-hued stage
Isaiah and his father, Joe Sanders, work together as part of Joe's non-profit organization.

I have had a few different opportunities with non-profit organizations. My father is the CEO of Colorado Uplift which is a non-profit based out of Denver, Colorado. They look at developing lifelong and life-changing relationships with underprivileged urban youths and so I've had some opportunities through that non-profit to support some of the kids there. 

I've also worked with Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It has been a big organization for me, growing up and being a part of that. What I've also gotten to do across some of these different non-profits is to perform spoken word poetry and rapping and just expressing my creativity. I've gotten to speak these messages of hope and encouragement, light and truth to high schoolers and college students over the past few years which has been a huge blessing for me. 

One of my favorite things to do is be able to step on that platform and give back to the youth that was around me. 

The Sanders family

After graduation, I'll continue to fulfill my duties as an officer in the United States Air Force. Once my tenure is done there, I look to come back to grad school and earn an MBA to eventually step into the world of social enterprise with a specific focus towards helping minority communities.  Because I'm Black on my father's side, Mexican on my mother's side, I really want to be able to get back to underrepresented people groups and do things. And I have different ideas on what kind of businesses I want to start. One idea is centered around trying to bridge and restore family units, and particularly the relationship between children and their fathers and their parents in general. To help make sure that children are receiving the mentoring, the nurturing, the care and compassion that they deserve. Also to provide resources for parents to feel bold and strong enough to continue to lead their households in impactful ways.

Helping underrepresented minority communities

The next step for me is, given my privileges, how can I leverage the opportunities I've had for education, leverage opportunities I've had for networking and connection, leverage my military experience and now the Stanford experience, that those in underprivileged communities don't always get to receive?

Having an MS&E degree from one of the top institutions in the world and having the undergraduate degree from the United States Air Force Academy, all these different things, I want to be able to bottle that, take what I've learned and create some sort of curriculum that I can help provide for people who have less access to education. So we can start training and equipping them to be business leaders, to be CEOs, to be leaders in our communities—things they may not see themselves as being right now.

I think one of the biggest issues in minority communities is lack of representation. The narrative, the current race narrative in America, I believe, is very centered around a Black man's way out being through sports or through rapping. I want to help change that narrative. I think an MS&E degree helps me do that because I can show people, no—we can be engineers, we can be leaders, we can be CEOs, we can do these other things too. And we can do this successfully. To enable that—that is why I think that an MS&E degree from a school like this is so special.

Perspective gained through courses

My experience class-wise has been great. Urban Studies 131 is very impactful. On a weekly basis, we hear from different CEOs and founders of different nonprofits, and people who are in the business of creating positive social change. I think that's just an amazing opportunity to not only hear about the different companies that I hadn't heard of before, but you get to realize some of the very innovative ways that they're creating a positive change. Also just hearing the stories of the entrepreneurs themselves and how they got to where they were and the challenges that they face, but also some of the ways that they went about navigating those obstacles.  

Another class that has been awesome as well is MS&E 272: Entrepreneurship Without Borders. Again, it creates opportunities to hear from guests speakers from around the world and provides a more global and international perspective on entrepreneurship—and seeing what makes it effective here, and maybe some of the specific geographic or cultural hindrances or opportunities that present themselves as you move across the globe. Chuck Eesley has been an amazing professor that has done a great job with that course—making it welcoming, engaging, and then providing the opportunities for learning not just through lecture, but also through group projects. It helped me learn a lot, working on how to start your own startup. 

Those have been two pretty cool classes so far.

A bright outlook at Stanford

For me Stanford has been a dream school since I was a kid. Just knowing the prestige of the university, the location, the opportunities to connect, the prowess of the athletic department here as well—having an opportunity to come here, I was super excited. 

With the coronavirus pandemic, it didn't start out the way I envisioned, but despite all that, there's not many other places I'd rather be besides Stanford. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's tough. Yes, it's challenging. There's work you put in for classes, work for football, and then managing the mental, emotional toll of everything that's going on as a Black man in America and everything that has happened this year. Regardless of all that, I’ve seen how Stanford has responded, the way I've seen the community come around me, with the football team, the way that I've just had an opportunity to grow and really learn a lot more about myself.

As I've had to deal with these challenges that Stanford presented me with, I think it's been tremendous and I've been super grateful, even in the short time that I've been here. But I'm hopeful that at some point, I'll get to experience Stanford more under more normal circumstances.

But regardless, given the circumstances, I think there's still tremendous opportunity for growth, for connections and to continue to become all that God called me to become so that I can continue to serve other people.

Spoken word: A passion that delivers profound messages from the heart

I mentioned the rapping and spoken word earlier. I'm actually trying to learn how to produce and make the beats myself so I can have more autonomy over the whole process. Even as I say this, my keyboard is literally in front of me.

I've been wanting to learn piano and guitar, but I can't claim that I know them yet. Those are things that I'm working on in my free time, but right now my life is school and football and on the side trying to learn music—watching videos and trying to pick up music theory. I think music and dancing, those are areas of passion for me. 

I love being able to creatively express yourself. The beautiful thing about spoken words and poetry is that I can give you a message that I could otherwise say to you in five minutes and we could just have a conversation. And there's a good chance it could still be impactful, but with spoken word, what makes it special is by using wordplay, double entendres and figurative language.

"It can help engage your attention a little differently, still present a very impactful message, and really show you my heart—that not only I’m trying to give you the message, but that I’m living the message."

I think that has been a beautiful way that God has allowed me to do storytelling. This is definitely one of my favorite hobbies or just pastimes. 

Other than that, I also enjoy playing video games and hanging out with friends. And I appreciate the opportunity and conversation during our time together.


Watch Isaiah's video spotlight below:

Master's student Isaiah Sanders discusses his focus on social enterprise and his passion to help minority communities.