Stefanie Van Rafelghem is a ‘16 UVA and HackCville grad, about six months into her job as a software engineer for Google Maps. She also can comfortably say that she never would have predicted herself working in software— for Google, no less— as a first year at UVA.
“I hated computer science in high school,” says the software engineer. She had taken a developing class in high school and gotten an internship in coding, and was pursuing a Computer Science minor at UVA. She was majoring in Biomedical Engineering, but not enjoying it as much as she would’ve liked; by the fall semester of second year, she was facing the prospect of switching majors.
During her second year, she attended a Startup Trip to New York City, which was then organized by the Entrepreneurship Group. The trips are an immersive experience; during the 2-3 day trip, she and other students toured companies, was introduced to alumni, and participated in networking opportunities with industry leaders.
For Stefanie, the trip radically shifted her perspective on computer science.
“I was actually seeing my major being used…I got to meet developers in the wild,” she describes.
Talking with professionals showed her how computer science could be the springboard for people’s projects and passions. And it was incredibly gratifying to hear the demand for developers from employers themselves. “People were interested and would support you because you were a developer,” Stefanie says. “That’s pretty awesome.”
That single Startup Trip established her commitment to switch majors to Computer Science. It also gave her the opportunity to network outside of UVA and even Virginia. As a Virginia native, but a travel lover, this part was especially important. Startup Trips gave her the ability to create business connections where she never could’ve reached before.
Convinced of the power of the Startup Trip, Stefanie joined the Entrepreneurship Group’s executive board as a Technology Officer to help run their trips program. They were already working closely with HackCville to organize, fund, and support trips; it wasn’t until her fourth year, as President, that the team moved officially to HackCville’s trips branch.
As a HackCville member and Special Programs Manager, she led students through Charlottesville, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, opening up their worlds just as hers was. For some context: the job of creating and managing trips was handled almost entirely by Stefanie and Daniel Willson (HackCville’s current managing director)– now, the trips team involves contributions from about twenty people.
Each trip takes two to six months’ worth of intensive organizing, communication, and general operations. By graduation, Stefanie had led trips for about 200 students.
Even as Stefanie advanced as a programmer, getting an internship with Google the summer of her third year and working as a Teaching Assistant for several computer science classes, her job at HackCville was developing her skills in another professional area. Her work helped her get comfortable with networking and company communication, which she describes as a definite advantage when entering the workforce. Stefanie was also making a difference in the lives of students, significantly so. Here are the words of Peter Simonsen, a 2015 UVA and HackCville grad:
“Please extend my sincerest thanks to everyone who helped organize the trip. I literally completely owe you guys for getting me my dream job.”
Getting feedback like that was extremely gratifying for Stefanie, especially when she knew firsthand the value of getting work experience early on. It took her a semester of hard effort to get her internship with Google her third year. “Getting that first internship was so important,” Stefanie reflects. It was “terrifying” showing up in Google offices for the first time, but it was the springboard for her current job, and it allowed her to feel comfortable going to work after graduation.
With her own experiences in mind, along with Google’s culture of inclusivity, she gave a talk at HackCville in January on Impostor Syndrome— the feeling that you’re a fraud and don’t deserve the success you’ve achieved. “Everybody faces this, especially when you’re new on the job,” she says. “And that’s okay— at’s important to continually remind yourself of that.” She’s still committed to helping students find the right path for them; in the few hours she hung around HackCville, she held a coffee chat with first and second year Computer Scientists and Engineers, and generously gave out advice about courses and job fairs.
She may have dealt with Imposter Syndrome personally when she first started her internship, but now her fears are a little different. “Now, I’m not constantly questioning whether I’m good at my job… I’m trying to define what I want to do next.”
“It’s so different from college, now that your goals aren’t so linearly laid out for you,” she said. “I could literally do anything. It’s a good problem to have, but… terrifying.”
HackCville was lucky to have her back as she enters the next stage of her journey.