Interview with CTE Summer Scholars alum, Yulini Persaud
Yulini Persaud is a Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School graduate (Class of 2016) and an alumna of the Bank of America CTE Summer Scholars program. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in Information Security Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, while working in cybersecurity at the New York Times.
Since the Bank of America CTE Summer Scholars program launched in 2012, Yulini is one of over 700 students who have participated in this career readiness experience, which includes paid internships with industry partners in Information Technology, Software Engineering, as well as Media, Technology, and Design.
Through the program, students gain industry-validated credentials, real-world professional skills, and exposure to authentic workplace settings. They also receive academic and professional support from teachers, in order to maximize their achievement and personal growth during the summer -- a time when many students lose ground they may have gained during the school year.
In the summer of 2014, as a sophomore in high school, Yulini had the opportunity to take part in a paid internship at Bellevue Hospital. There, she supported the rebuilding of the hospital’s information technology infrastructure, following significant damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
We sat down with Yulini and asked her why she participated in the program, as well as how this experience led to a career in cybersecurity:
Tell us a bit about what led you to take part in the Bank of America CTE Summer Scholars program -- what drew you to it?
At the time, I was a sophomore at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical HS, in Queens. I have always had an interest in technology, but it wasn’t until I became a student there that I began to see it as an exciting career path. As the daughter of immigrants, whose parents came to this country when they were very young, I was taught to work hard at anything I do and to pursue all opportunities with courage.
One day my shop teacher pulled me aside and encouraged me to apply. Perplexed, I asked him, “why did you pick me?” He looked at me square in the eyes and said, “you’re a great fit and we believe in you… you just have to apply.” I simply couldn’t pass this up. Much to my surprise, the interview was taking place the very next day. I was beyond nervous. This was my first job interview experience, and looking back now, it was 100% a real professional interview. From asking what my career goals were, to what I consider to be my strengths and weaknesses -- it had all the markings of a real job interview, including multiple rounds and a group interview. I’ve had a lot of interviews since and this practice alone was a real leg up in my career.
What was your placement and what did your day-to-day look like?
I was an Information Technology intern at Bellevue Hospital for the summer. The hospital was getting back on its feet following Hurricane Sandy -- which forced the hospital to evacuate -- a lot of the data infrastructure was left severely damaged. My job there was to support the rebuilding of inventory and assets, so staff could focus on serving their patients. Every day, I’d go to random departments across the hospital to compile information and help to get systems back on track, all while shadowing experienced technicians.
Of all the things you could have done in the summer of 2014, why did you choose to spend it engaging in work-based learning?
As I was learning things in class and reading technology news on my phone, I began to ask myself, “how does this actually apply to an organization in real-time?” This internship made it all come together. Even though I came into the experience already pretty “career-oriented”, interning at a real IT department made me “career-focused.” I left wanting to do more and more. And really, the program was a stepping stone to everything else I’ve done since. At every job interview I’ve had since, employers always ask with a bit of shock, “you interned as an IT... while in high school?” It’s impressive to this day.
What are some of the things you learned while part of the program?
Getting to sharpen my communication skills was beyond valuable for me. There I was, an otherwise shy and awkward 15 year-old girl walking into different offices, asserting myself, confidently saying, “I’m here to do some work on your machine.” Being a CTE student, I came into the internship with technical skills, which gave me an upper-hand. But now I had the opportunity to put those skills to the test in a real-world context. The staff was surprised that a young intern could so quickly and easily replace a hard drive or perform software-based work. This was also my first experience collaborating with other interns or staff, which required navigating personality types and reaching consensus when we would divvy up work or operate as a team.
How do you think employers benefit when they provide these types of work-based learning opportunities for high school students?
For starters, employers get an extra hand in tackling a major project. In many ways, if they invest the time, they are able to support and shape the workforce of the future. At Bellevue, my manager was so committed to expanding my learning and I was always able to go to him for mentorship. I’ll never forget that experience. Most importantly, when employers participate in programs like these, they are sending a clear message that they are committed to uplifting underserved communities by helping young people kick-start their careers.
Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now.
Currently, I’m an Information Security intern on the defense team at the New York Times. Every day, reporters get information from all kinds of sources; my team’s job is to make sure links are safe to click on and that any attachments they receive are safe to open. At the same time, I’m helping staff monitor or clean up their online footprint to prevent them from having their information leaked or used against them. Today I’m preparing to lead a training for reporters on utilizing social media safely. I’m also working on improving a protocol to mitigate and be prepared in case of a security breach. It’s an unbelievable job -- I feel very lucky.
Sounds like far more than luck is involved here. What would you say are the skills you learned through the CTE Summer Scholars program that you use in this role daily?
The communication skills remain just so important. Like I began to learn at Bellevue, every day I need to successfully communicate about technology with so many different audiences. For example, if we identify suspicious activity on a server, I often have to explain this to someone who isn’t necessarily tech-savvy. Knowing how to break down these concepts is invaluable. Beyond that, the level of exposure I was able to get through the program set me up to be able to learn more complex tasks. You just can’t do cybersecurity without knowing information technology really well and, ideally, knowing it first-hand. CTE Summer Scholars gave me a foundation from which I’ve been able to build a career.
How do you think more women of color, currently underrepresented in technical fields, can be encouraged and supported to know they can pursue careers in technology?
We need leaders in technology -- and really in all industries -- to be really intentional about creating inclusive spaces where everyone is invited in. That is the only way we can break down the biases and lack of access that maintain an imbalanced representation of women and people of color in the technology workforce, relative to everyone else.
What individual people choose to do about this matters. People in positions of power have become advocates or mentors for me and made me feel authentically welcome into those spaces. The high school teacher who approached me and nudged me to do CTE Summer Scholars program is a perfect example of this. I went from feeling insecure and asking myself, “do I really know this stuff?” to becoming super-confident in my abilities as I went through the internship program and pursued this career.
Now, seeing technology spaces that are too often male-dominated makes me want to become a stronger advocate myself. In recent years, I’ve gone back to mentor students at Thomas A. Edison HS; holding training sessions in preparation for competitions and offering them the kind of support I got in high school. I just want to make sure they have the same experience and opportunities I did.
What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to students currently participating in the program, or any type of work-based learning experience?
#1 - Ask as many questions as you can. If you don’t know something, someone can help you understand. I was often too shy in my internship and I regret not speaking up more. Now, I ask questions all of the time. I learned that that’s how I learn.
#2 - Take as many opportunities as you can. There is no project too small or too big. Always be ready to volunteer, because that’s how you gain experience.
#3 - Be confident in what you know. Remember you know your stuff and you come equipped with all kinds of unique assets and skills that no one else has.
The Fund for Public Schools is proud to partner with Bank of America and the NYC Department of Education to support students’ college and career readiness through the Bank of America CTE Summer Scholars program.