Meet our graduates | Saron Dea, BS '21
July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Linda Esquivel. Edited for length and clarity.
As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Saron Dea, a recent graduate of the bachelor's program in Management Science and Engineering.
Saron shares stories about her childhood, moving around the world until she arrived in California at age 11. Saron originally came to Stanford determined to become a human rights lawyer, but soon realized that she could make just as big of an impact on societal issues with a degree in engineering. She also shares stories about her time at Stanford and in the MS&E program, as well as her plans for the future.
My name is Saron Dea; I'm a senior in MS&E and my concentration is organizations, technology and policy.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background, such as where did you grow up?
I kind of grew up all over the world. I was born in Ethiopia, and my family moved to Norway when I was two or so. I went to preschool there; it was a couple years there. And then we moved back to Ethiopia when I was in elementary school, so we did a couple years there. And then we actually moved to Canada; we moved to Montreal, so I lived there for a bit. And then we moved out to British Columbia, which is on the west coast of Canada. And then we moved to Sacramento when I was in middle school, so I have grown up in California since I was about 11 or so. But I'm a big California girl.
What was the reason for moving so much?
There are a couple different reasons. When my parents were pretty young, the reason we moved to Norway was because my dad did his PhD in Norway; he’s a cultural anthropologist. And then my little brother was born, and my little brother has special needs. He's on the autism spectrum among having some other special needs, so a lot of our moving was really trying to get better health care for my brother.
How did you become interested in engineering? Are there experiences growing up that you can draw on?
It's funny actually; I came to Stanford to be a human rights lawyer. I was very involved in the advocacy realm in high school and civic education and things like that. So, I actually had no interest in engineering when I first came to Stanford. Then my freshman year, I discovered pretty quickly that I didn't need to do my undergraduate degree in the humanities or social sciences to go to law school, so I started exploring. Everyone was taking CS106A fall quarter of freshman year, so I said, “Okay, cool; I'll take this alongside some other stuff.” And I actually had a really hard time. I did not do well; I ended up retaking 106A. But eventually I realized that a lot of the problems I thought I wanted to solve or advocate for in the realm of the law, I could also tackle in a lot of other ways and come up with some more systemic solutions outside of the legal framework. That's how I became interested in engineering and this whole realm.
Probably the best way I can sum it up is I came to Stanford thinking that the best way that I could advocate for people that I saw as disenfranchised or not being represented by existing entities and structures was by being an advocate, by being a lawyer, by litigating cases. And then I got to Stanford and I realized that people here weren't just thinking about jobs or careers; they were thinking about entire businesses and changing entire industries. It dawned on me that the solution I thought I had to this problem might not even exist in jobs that I see today. I thought engineering and entrepreneurship would give me a different set of skills, with a much broader application, to be able to solve problems that are at the intersection of human rights and social justice, but also business and government and policy.
Can you tell us a little bit about your area of concentration?
I studied organizations, technology and policy, which essentially explores the relationships between organizations that are tech-oriented—software companies, product-oriented organizations—and how those intersect with existing policies, including things like litigating business, as well as intellectual property and different things like that, and how all of that fits together in the realm of entrepreneurship, research and innovation. Essentially just how business and policy and people can live harmoniously.
How did you become interested in this area of concentration?
Given some of my previous interests, it felt like a logical fit for me. It felt like a place where I could leverage all of the engineering fundamentals, software and all of that knowledge, and apply that. How do we make data-driven decisions that actually affect people? Decisions that aren't just about A/B testing a product or market research. Not that those things aren't also important, but I think making decisions that actually affect people and entire groups—whether it's a jurisdiction, or Congressional district, or a pool of consumers—I think it’s a much different decision-making process and a much different set of skills. That was the application of engineering that was most interesting to me.
How did the pandemic affect your last year at Stanford?
I feel really lucky in a lot of ways. I was actually originally supposed to graduate with the class of 2020, and I took some time off when I was a junior, so I knew that I was going to be back and I knew that I was going to have some classes to finish up anyway. And so in a lot of ways, I feel like I had my four years, so to speak, and I think that it's affected me in a much different way than somebody who may have actually had 25 or more percent of their Stanford experience impacted by that.
That being said, I know of course the pandemic has been really tragic, but I think for me personally I've been really grateful that it has allowed me to develop a lot of relationships, especially within MS&E, that I otherwise wouldn't have, especially because I was living on campus this past year. Being in classes with people who were here, even though we couldn't see each other, fostered a lot of community in ways that maybe would have been different if I wasn't on campus. My next-door neighbor was an MS&E major, and I was definitely feeling really socially isolated at the beginning of the year, and I'm really grateful for the friends that I've made in MS&E that I felt like grandfathered me into their own friend groups.
I know this is probably the opposite of what I'm supposed to answer, because I know it has brought a lot of people further apart by isolating. And I don't want to make it sound as if I'm making light of it; obviously this has been a terrible experience. But within that, I've been really lucky to find people that have been super supportive. And given that my cohort kind of already graduated, it's been an especially pleasant surprise to make friends that I feel that same depth and connection with.
I interned last summer, and it was definitely tough because I was in an internship program that was set up to be where if you do well you'll get a full-time return offer. So, in addition to having this pressure to perform, there's also like, “Okay, I’m not seeing these people in person. I'm not networking in the same way; I'm not building these warm and fuzzy connections in the same way that I otherwise would.” And it also limited the scope of my actual work. I was working at Google, and Google doesn't give interns remote access to the code base. And so that made a lot of things challenging, because there were things that I just couldn’t access. I would have to be screen sharing with my boss, or taking screenshots of snippets of code and stuff that I needed. You definitely have to get really creative in a lot of different ways.
In addition to feeling very grateful that I even had an internship and that it didn't get canceled, I think it also gave me the room to think about some work-life balance things in a way that I maybe wouldn't have thought about if we weren't in a global pandemic. It kind of forced me to be a little bit more conscientious about what kind of environment I wanted to enter. I also was lucky to have a team and a supervisor that very much made it clear that at least this team was very much aligned with the personal values that I had, so I'm really grateful for that experience overall.
You worked with the MS&E Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) committee. Can you share a little bit about your experience?
The DE&I experience has been interesting. I've learned a lot, and it's been pleasantly surprising more often than not. It's definitely been a really formative experience, and I think, especially given some of the challenges that I faced at Stanford early on, it's felt very full-circle to be able to now be in a position where I'm supporting other students in ways that, I think, would have been really impactful for me earlier on in my Stanford trajectory.
I'm still taking core classes, so I still interact with sophomores and juniors. And to have people asking me questions that I feel like I actually have a little bit of a systematic solution for is really rewarding. For me, a lot of the work is just rooted in the fact that I don't want other people to have the same experience I had. That's not to say that it was all bad, but I get to help communicate that the prestige of Stanford doesn't come from gatekeeping and making people feel uncomfortable or unwanted; it comes from intellectual pursuits and scholastic pursuits, pushing the bounds of innovation and knowledge—not pushing the bounds of people and their personal level of comfort in these spaces. And, in fact, I think you can't really get to the innovative research and scholarship if you're not creating psychologically safe spaces for people to exchange ideas genuinely. I feel really grateful to have had a chance to play a part in cultivating that environment.
Did you have a favorite professor or course that you took within MS&E?
This class isn't offered anymore, but there was a class that was offered when I was a sophomore, I think in 2017 or ‘18, with a retired professor, Robert McGinn, called Ethical Issues in Engineering. That was one of the first few classes that really got me super excited about MS&E, because it wasn't just talking about how to build hotels, roads, software or whatever; it was talking about the ethical implications of the decisions that engineers made—design decisions that later ended up in accidents, or product things, market things. I think it was just really interesting to kind of see the scope of the ramifications of the decisions, and especially the design decisions, the engineers can make.
Something I really, really appreciated about Professor McGinn was that he was super open to the fact that, even though this class captured a broader range of voices than other engineering classes, it was still a narrow scope. He was just really excited about allowing us to bring in other instances of a similar phenomenon, or opening up the dialogue to talking about similar decisions that were being made in other parts of the world. I think sometimes Stanford and engineering in general can be very Silicon-Valley-focused, or even America- and North-America-focused, and as somebody who is not from North America I feel like I'm always thinking about how these same kinds of things have rippling effects in other parts of the world. I felt like he was really enthusiastic about bringing that kind of perspective. And he also let me take his class as a sophomore, so I'm super grateful for that, because it was mostly seniors. I'm not sure that I would have been in MS&E without that.
He was also just a really sweet guy. It was a time when I was feeling super insecure as a student. I was actually kind of between MS&E and The Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), and he was the previous director of STS, so I set up some time with him because I thought he would be a good person to talk to about the ins and outs of both programs. And he just was super affirming and very like, “I have no doubt that you can do whatever you want to do.” And I was like, “Oh, that's crazy. If you feel that way; maybe I should feel that way.”
The ethics class also points to how MS&E is really unique in its interdisciplinary nature. That was another thing that drew me to MS&E, because freshman and sophomore year, everyone was taking the same engineering classes. And what really drew me to MS&E was that the elective classes, the concentration-specific classes, weren't just building on your technical knowledge; they were emphasizing the implications of that technical knowledge and what you can do with that. I really appreciated that they pushed us to think beyond a lot of what you may think is traditional engineering.
What are your career plans after Stanford, and how did you decide on them?
After Stanford, I'm going back to Google for a rotational program. I think it'll be a great opportunity to learn how to apply some of these skills in industry. More than anything, I'm interested in just seeing how a lot of these different data collection, gathering and analysis frameworks actually power real-time decisions within a real company that affect real people. I'm really excited about that.
I'm also waiting to hear back from some deferred admissions programs that I've applied to, so my plans will kind of depend on that. But luckily they're all deferred, so hopefully if I do get in, I won't matriculate for a while anyway. But I think ultimately, long term, I'm really interested in being able to go back home to Ethiopia and lead a lot of development projects. I think there's a lot of room for sustainable urban development. And especially as somebody who has most of my family still in rural Ethiopia—I actually don't have any blood family even in the capital—I'm really interested in seeing some of these technologies and innovative processes be applied in more rural contexts.
So you might be there for a year or so, and then hopefully get into grad school?
Yeah, the program at Google that I've signed on to is for two years, and after that they do a pretty good job of keeping you on if you'd like to, or folding you in somewhere within the rest of the company. And that's another thing I'm grateful for, to be working at such a big company right out of college, and a place that really values internal mobility. I think even over the summer while everything was virtual and people didn't have a reason to answer my emails or hop on phone calls with me, they very much did, even people who weren't on my team. I think the open doors/open calendar culture is really inviting. I'm looking forward to seeing, outside of just the responsibilities of my specific role, all of the different things that I can explore there, and hopefully finding something that is aligned with my long-term goals as well.
I previously worked in people operations, and the VP of people ops—I think he might have just taken on a new position like a couple weeks ago—I did a one-on-one with him over the summer, and he was the one who got me interested in thinking about an MBA. He was, I think, a chemical engineer by training for his undergrad and masters, and then went to business school and did some management consulting and then ended up in tech. He was just really encouraging about the fact that having these quantitative skills didn’t mean I had to be an engineer for the rest of my life. Especially when you grow up in an immigrant family, there's a push for you to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and it's hard to imagine yourself as a CEO, or this or that.
As you get a better understanding of these different organizations and institutions in the world, you realize that, one of the things that's been really kind of a salient lesson for me is that change and innovation is not always simply a feature or a result of domain expertise. Yes, it's important, and it certainly helps to be an expert in a certain field, but the people that are movers and shakers and changing the way that things are done are not always the people who are Nobel Peace Prize winners; they are people who are able to identify problems and identify the resources and the support necessary to implement strategic solutions.
That was also a really big lesson for me, because MS&E is definitely very much a generalist degree. I think there are a lot of engineering degrees, even at Stanford, that are training people to be specialists, and I think MS&E is kind of the opposite. I think you have to be kind of intentional about what you choose to do with that, because it's easy to feel like people just know so many things that you don't, and it's like, no—actually you know all these other things, and if you wanted to know more about one specific thing, you have this really cool foundational framework to be able to dive deeper into that.
What excites you most about your future?
The best answer I can come up with is change—change is what excites me the most. Kind of how I was saying earlier about Stanford, I think one of the most rewarding parts about leaving Stanford now and having done some of this DE&I work and all the other things that I spent my time doing is that there are specific things I can point to now, like, “This would have been really helpful for me to have,” and I'm making sure that it exists for people who are coming after me. That's something that I look forward to continuing throughout my career.
Especially as somebody who is—I'm not the first in my family to go to college; I mentioned my dad has a PhD—still the first person in my family to grow up not in Ethiopia and to grow up with all this access to all these different opportunities and also having a special needs sibling, it's never lost on me that I'm really lucky to have the experiences that I have. And I feel very strongly about making those opportunities, experiences and generally just that quality of life available to other people who come from where I come from, and other places, of course, too. That's probably what I look forward to the most in my career and in my future, is being able to build concrete solutions for problems that I've had to bootstrap my way through, or people around me have had to bootstrap their way through, or members of my community have just kind of had to make do with.
What advice do you have for current and future students? How can they make the best use of their time in the MS&E program and at Stanford?
My best piece of MS&E advice would be to finish the core as early as you can. But one of the best lessons that I've learned is that at Stanford—and maybe in MS&E as well, because it is so interdisciplinary—there are so many opportunities to pursue. Nobody tells you until after you're burned out from trying to do all of them, but you shouldn't do all of them. And in fact, the returns of you doing all of them will be much lower than pursuing one or two things more sincerely and with more presence. So my best piece of advice would be to take for granted that you're doing the best you can, and that if you could do more, you would do more, and just be compassionate with yourself about that. People at Stanford come from so many different backgrounds and have so many different responsibilities and priorities. For a long time, I was really unkind to myself about what I perceived my relative performance to be, and I think a lot of people fall into the same thing. So you can do it all, but you don’t have to. And, in fact, you shouldn't.
At least for me, Stanford was kind of my first exposure to this idea of self-care. Self-care can be a bubble bath, but truthfully, I think the harder self-care is forcing yourself to face the scary things, to go to the office hours that you really don't want to so that you don't have to be as stressed out tomorrow night. Or self-care can even be forcing yourself to go to that lunch that you've been rescheduling with that friend every quarter since freshman spring because it will make you feel good, or setting up time with your professor. I've had to learn the hard way that self-care is building a life for yourself that you don't have to run away from and that you don't have to control-alt-delete yourself out of every week. Try to build sustainable habits, because you're going to be in your body and your mind for much longer than just while you're at Stanford, and it's really important to learn how to make peace with yourself.
What will you miss most about Stanford?
It's kind of a double-edged sword. What I will miss about Stanford is having such easy access to so many amazing resources, in the sense of people, facilities—anything you want to learn, you have an Olympian or world class expert who will be ready to teach it to you. That is such a unique experience that I will never take for granted.
I think the flip side of that is at Stanford—because it's a place that attracts so many experts and is so renowned—it can be easy to feel like you're not allowed to fail, to be less than perfect or to be a learner or a novice. That was something I definitely learned the hard way. It reminded me of when I took AP calculus when I was a senior, and I was sitting in class with people who were taking multivariable calculus for the second time. It was just a very different experience, and the structures don't really adjust for that, so you have to find that compassion within yourself, to say that it's okay. That's something that I will miss about Stanford, but I'm also kind of excited about going into the real world and just being allowed to not be perfect again.