Meet Abril Vela, Microsoft YouthSpark Star and Evangelist for Young Women in Tech

Abril Vela

Turns out, young women in tech are not unicorns. And Abril Vela is one of those savvy, smart, well spoken, and totally passionate tech girls. She’s a junior at the University of Michigan, the founder of Chicago Girls in Computing, and a get more girls involved in tech evangelist extraordinaire.

She’s participated in various programs from Microsoft’s YouthSpark to Computer Science for All to Girls Are IT!, all with the mindset that programming is fun… and for everybody! We caught up with her to learn how she’s shaking up the tech world through education. You go girl!

What drew you to technology as a young girl?

AV: I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to study computer science while I was in high school; it was one of the electives offered to students along with art and music. When I was a freshman I knew that I didn’t want to sign up for art or music, it just wasn’t really my thing so the counselor registering me for classes put me into an introductory Java and Media Computation course (I had absolutely no idea what any of those things meant at the time).

I was incredibly lucky that the counselor did sign me up for this class though; my teacher, Don Yanek, was one of the most passionate people I have ever met and really cared deeply about all his students. I definitely struggled with some of the concepts and there was a steep learning curve, but he went above and beyond to assure me he believed I could do it.

He pushed me to go to workshops and events outside of the classroom to further my learning and got me involved with programs like Microsoft DigiGirlz, which is what really got me excited about engineering. He became my #1 supporter and ever since then I’ve never been able to step away from learning and pursuing a path that involves technology.

How important was joining Microsoft’s DigiGirlz to fostering your passion for technology as a teen girl? Would you recommend it or a similar program to other girls?

AV: When I started Chicago Girls in Computing in high school, I had the chance to meet a representative from Microsoft. She got Microsoft involved in my non-profit as a sponsor. We were able to get more girls involved all over the city with their help. We had more resources and meetups where girls interested in tech could mingle and collaborate.

That’s when I started participating in DigiGirlz, which is part of the YouthSpark program. I became an ambassador for the program, where I promoted their tools, resources, and courses to other girls. I would definitely recommend the program or others like it! It’s a way for girls to learn to code, but also meet each other and build a fun community around their shared tech-y passion.

Abril Vela with Selena Gomez at We the Youth Chicago
Abril teaching Selena Gomez how to code at We Day.

I still act as an ambassador for Microsoft’s youth programs. I was their spokesperson for a We Day event in Chicago. On stage, I covered company topics as well as discussed my own work locally. It was an amazing experience, I even got to meet Selena Gomez and taught her how to code!

Aside from studying Information Science at the University of Michigan, your LinkedIn lists you’re a Program Leader at Girls Are IT! Can you tell us about your position?

AV: Sure! For this project, I get to help write all the curriculum and teach at their camp series. This involves coding and app dev, as well as a general intro to STEM. I’m learning all the time about what makes a well-rounded workshop and how to give girls a good experience who wouldn’t get this experience otherwise.

In your YouthSpark spotlight article, you mentioned that you, “aspire to be a computer engineer and [you] love building things and being hands-on.” Do you still feel that way now that you’re in college?

AV: Once I got to college my path definitely changed, but I feel that that’s common for a lot of people or at least I’ve come to accept that you often don’t always end up doing what you thought you would before you started college.

If anything, this experience has taught me to always be comfortable with change!

I came into college aspiring to be a computer engineer, and I definitely still love to make things and any project that’s hands-on and I always will. But, I found that the school of engineering wasn’t the right fit for me. I was looking for an opportunity in college that allowed me to explore technology in a much more open ended way.

I always kind of knew that I was interested more in how the tools we have around us were being used than building new software, but I came to realize this fully when I got to college. I’ve spent quite a few years working on building organizations and working with student groups focused on technology and entrepreneurship and this helped me to see that the intersection of the social and computing is what I wanted to explore.

So, I decided to begin my degree in Information Sciences where I can now study things like user experience and social media. If anything, this experience has taught me to always be comfortable with change!

Tell us about the Computer Science for All movement! How did you get involved? What kind of impact do you have as an advocate?

AV: Computer Science for All is an initiative started by President Obama to get computer science into the hands of more students. I got involved as an intern in the Chicago public schools, where I got to work with kids directly in the classroom. I am part of the pilot program in Chicago that tests curriculum for the district and a grading system to gauge students’ progress through the material.

Abril Vela tweet

I loved how hands on my role was! My real passion is in the realm of education, specifically through entrepreneurship and tech. I’m interested in how tech challenges stereotypes around what education looks like. What does creativity look like outside the traditional classroom structure with the possibilities tech brings?

If you could have any job after college, what would it be?

I want to create new, creative, and fun ways of teaching young people how to code.

AV: As you can tell, I’m really interested in the intersect of humans and technology. I would like to study how tech  and mass data affects our everyday lives. How can we create better products and  education programs through this learned experience?

For me, I definitely want to work with students post-college. I want to be part of the curriculum design process, where we’re working with code in the K-12 spectrum. I see this role either within a school district or on the side. Basically, getting code into the classroom.

Ideal world I would love to build my own education software solution for student learning. I want to create new, creative, and fun ways of teaching young people how to code, where the focus is on hands-on program integration. I really excel at hands-on programming and testing!

Here at Metiza we believe self-care is key to wellness and success, what is something you do to unwind and take care of yourself?

AV: My best friend and I have established a weekly routine of baking cookies and watching our favorite show (Grey’s Anatomy every Thursday) – it’s a great way to unwind and spend time with my friends.

What is one nugget of advice you would give to other girls looking to pursue computer science?

Computer science is a way of thinking – that’s why I fell in love with it.

AV: Always remember that there’s more to computer science than just programming; computer science is a way of thinking – that’s why I fell in love with it. Over time my passions and my outlook on technology has definitely changed and I’ve found that what I wanted has changed with it.

Computer Science is just one part of the world of computing, so don’t get discouraged on your journey to figure out what’s right for you. If building things, using technology, or overall the world of computing makes you excited at all I want you to know that you can find a path that is right for you. There is no one right way or one way fits all!

Images via Microsoft and Daily Mail.




Also published on Medium.