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Meet our graduates | Bao Phan (BS, MS '22)

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July 19, 2022. Interviewed by Linda Esquivel. Audio and text edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2022 Graduates podcast series, we chatted with Bao Phan, a graduate of both the bachelor’s and master’s programs in MS&E.

Bao shares how she grew up wanting to become an immigration lawyer, but, upon arriving at Stanford, discovered how to use engineering and computational tools to advance social good. She also discusses her experience as a first-generation low-income, or FLI, student at Stanford and her work helping other FLI students as a member of MS&E’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee.

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My name is Bao Phan; I was an MS&E undergraduate and master's student.

I graduated from MS&E in 2021 with a bachelor's in the organization, technology, and policy track. During that time, I also minored in German Studies and received honors distinction in the School of Education. Both are highly recommended programs.

Now in 2022, I just graduated a few days ago with a master's in MS&E, and for the past year I’ve been on the computational social science track.

I was born in Vietnam and lived there until I was seven—I’m actually on my way back after graduation for about six months next year. And then I moved around the states quite a bit. We eventually settled in Michigan, and I grew up outside of Ann Arbor. I graduated from high school there, and I’ve been at Stanford ever since.

How did you become interested in engineering? Are there experiences growing up that you can draw from?

To be honest, I didn't think I was necessarily interested in engineering. For the longest time, I thought I was going to grow up and become a lawyer—maybe an immigration lawyer because that's pertinent to my background. But when I got to Stanford, I realized that, as a first generation and low-income student, there was this whole world of Silicon Valley that I didn't know.

I had a good grasp on reading things, understanding them, and learning about social sciences. But there were some things that I wanted to get better at, like the scientific and engineering focus in MS&E. I wanted to challenge myself to learn about the statistics and probabilities that help us describe how our world works.

What drew me here is that MS&E allows me to think about how I can make innovations and help make education better for underrepresented folks using computational tools.

Was it more of a self-realization? You had an idea of what you wanted to do, but didn't realize engineering was so broad in terms of the different areas that it touched.

Yes, exactly. I think something that will surprise a lot of people about MS&E, given that a lot of students work in industry after graduating, is that a lot of our professors’ research has to do with areas of social good. Professor Itai Ashlagi, for example, studies kidney market matching, and Prof. Irene Lo worked on San Francisco’s school matching algorithm.

During my past year in computational social science, I realized that these computational tools have applications for making people's lives better and making things more equitable. That was what retained me in MS&E for both degrees.

Thinking back, a lot of my undergrad was spent exploring within the School of Engineering and other schools in the University. I think that was necessary as a first generation student because I didn't come from a background where I could look to my family or the people close to me to see what one would normally do with a Stanford degree.

So in undergrad it was a lot of exploration, which MS&E was also good for. It helps that the requirements are broad. I gained great exposure to not only Silicon Valley, but all sorts of different sciences and ways that people think about the things they care about.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your time at Stanford?

The pandemic hit in the middle of my junior year, and typical of an MS&E schedule I was deep in the core requirements, just starting to make close friendships. And then everything went online, so I took a lot of my engineering breadth and depth classes online, and a lot of my friendships also had to continue online.

That time was pretty tough. I found that professors all over the school were very supportive and understanding, and obviously everyone was doing their best, but I did feel that doing classes from home was a little isolating.

Coming back from the pandemic, though, was a really nice experience. I felt that students were yearning for connection, so I felt confident that I was going to make the best of the rest of my time at Stanford and try to be as involved as possible.

As we’re coming back in person this year, it has been nice to meet professors in person, get to know them, and meet MS&E undergraduates and master’s students. This is probably one of my best social years at Stanford, because we're all ready to get to know each other, make friends, and be involved in creating this community.

You were a member of the MS&E Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) committee. How did that experience shape your time at Stanford?

I’ll first describe some of the things I worked on, then some of the impact that we intend to have, and lastly the impact that it had on me.

My first project was to work on external recruiting for our graduate programs. A big issue at highly selective institutions is there are huge barriers to entry for underrepresented minority students, especially in STEM. So I hosted the second annual MS&E SERGE (Stanford Exposure to Research and Graduate Education), which is a recruiting event for diverse students.

MS&E professors and current students attended the event, and we helped people apply by hosting workshops and giving them application fee waivers. For me, it was a good introduction to the priorities of our department and ways in which we can make it less opaque for people, both internally and externally.

This year, I worked on an NSF grant alongside Professor Chuck Eesley and a few other faculty from the School of Engineering. Our goal is to be able to use the money to provide scholarships for students and to create programming targeted at the unique needs of underrepresented minority students and low-income students in particular.

During the rest of the year, I worked on institutional support projects, such as improving our communication, performing a culture audit to help us figure out the needs of students, and doing projects to create community within the school.

Throughout all of this time, our intention on the committee is to make sure that students from any background can learn about MS&E and also feel like they belong in MS&E. There's definitely a lot of work to be done, but we collected a lot of good data this year. I’m excited to see what we'll do with it next year.

In terms of the impact that the committee has had on me, I couldn't imagine wrapping up my time at Stanford any other way. When I actually get the time to think about it, I get quite emotional. Coming from a first-gen background, this work has really empowered me to feel like I have agency to initiate change, even when I might be swimming against institutional currents. When I feel like I have something important to say in places that may be new to me, this experience has empowered me to say it.

I also learned to be a lot more comfortable working with administrators and professors. It really humanized folks that I felt were so far above me and knew so much more than me. It made me feel really valued as a member of this community.

Speaking to students, both potential and current—about their own educational journey, what's important to them, what does community and belonging mean to them, how to make them feel more academically supported—created social-emotional connections that, without this work, I wouldn't have formed. And my Stanford career would be so much duller without it.

I highly recommend DE&I initiatives for anyone who may be interested, and I also recommend any alumni listening to support these initiatives, because they have a lot of benefits for folks from many different backgrounds.

I know we have more work to do, but it's also very promising to see just how warm and open people are in the department, from faculty to staff to students. I definitely recommend that folks who may be interested in MS&E reach out to staff like Lori Cottle and Lindsey Akin, or to professors—all of them work on really cool things and they're really interested in getting to know students in my experience. 

What are your career plans after Stanford, and how did you decide on them?

I will be coming in as Chief of Staff for an early-stage education technology startup called Inspirit VR. We make immersive learning experiences for STEM subjects for K-12 students. Imagine 3D models for science classes from elementary through high school. Our goal is to deliver those products as equitably as possible.

I’m excited for this role because it combines a lot of the things that I’ve learned at Stanford. For example, from my honors thesis in education I learned a lot about the sociology of education, which will help me think about equity and accessibility, what teaching means, and how to do that well.

Then from my organization, technology, and policy track, I learned how to run a company, what management looks like, how to be an executive, how to inspire people to work well together as a team and achieve common goals. And then from computational social science, I'll be helping to build data science functions and asking what we optimize for as a company.

Not only do I feel like the founders are some of my best friends, but the remote nature of our company allows me to live my best life, travel all over the world, and go to Vietnam for the first time in two decades. It's a great mission and social life, as well as an academically interesting position. I highly recommend looking for job opportunities in unexpected areas.

What most excites you about your future?

Personally, I’m excited to see the world and to get to know people and different cultures. Having spent a lot of my young adulthood in Silicon Valley, I know that things are a little bit different here than in a lot of places. I’m excited to see how people approach work and life in other parts of the world.

Professionally, I’m excited to be challenged. I’m going into a highly unstructured role, where if things go wrong and I need to prove to people that I’m capable of getting things done, I have the agency to do that and to advocate for myself.

I’m also excited to be in a role where my job is to support other people. I look forward to applying the tools I’ve gained here, but also to learn new things and see what the world looks like. And I’m also excited because I get to be a part of this big remote work experiment.

What advice do you have for future students? How can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?

I'd break it up into three areas: socially, academically, and professionally.

Socially, I think people come to MS&E with so many different goals and from so many different places, so don’t assume that you can peg what they're interested in. Because we're so interdisciplinary, you'll be surprised to see what your professors are into and what your fellow friends are into. Always be on the prowl for new friends from unexpected places.

Academically, I highly recommend office hours. I recommend sending deranged emails to your TAs and your professors at two in the morning if something really bothers you. Folks in the department are really here to help you. Sometimes it might feel like people are just saying that, but you'll get so much more out of your experience if you ask questions, whether out of necessity or curiosity.

Professionally, the way that I’ve done it hasn't been the most straightforward. I definitely took a lot of time to figure out what I’m interested in. But in the end, it was really helpful. It empowered me to feel confident going into unstructured environments, which for me led to the benefits of optimizing for my social priorities, along with getting a decent pay and being able to challenge myself intellectually.

So even if your road is windy, follow it, because you learn so much here that you'll be able to apply it anywhere. And if where you want to go changes throughout your time here, that's okay.

What will you miss most about Stanford and the Bay Area?

I’m going to miss you, all of my professors here, and my friends that are still here. I see myself back often; in between places I'll probably come back here as if it was a home base.

It took five years, but I finally feel like I know how to navigate this place well and contribute to it, and I don't see that stopping anytime soon. I think we have a lot of work to do to make this community richer, and being a part of that is really rewarding to me, so I see myself coming back.

In terms of the Bay Area, my parents were here for the first time this past week, and there was just so much to show them. Muir Woods, San Francisco, beautiful coastal hikes, and a bunch of really good food. I know many places in the world and around the country don’t have this diversity of cuisine and geography.

It’s hard to leave, but I have to get out there and experience different cultures. Maybe the hustle and work isn't everything, and I have a feeling that's also the life for me.

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