Ashley Chu Wins $40K From Amazon

The Alameda High School senior plans to major in computer science at UC Berkeley and is doing her part to bring more women into technology.


Published:

Photo by Clayton J. Mitchell

Ashley Chu was already having a rough day when a teacher asked her to report to his classroom after school.

“It was college decision day, so it was really a tense mood,” the Alameda High School senior recalled. “I thought I was in trouble.”

Instead, Chu was handed a plain Amazon delivery box to open. Inside, there was  an announcement that she was one of just 100 students nationwide — five in the Bay Area — to receive a $40,000 Amazon Future Engineer scholarship, an honor that comes with a paid internship at the tech giant’s Seattle headquarters. A video shows Chu laughing with joy as a friend throws her arms around her.

“That lifted my spirits,” Chu said.

Chu plans to use the $10,000-a-year funding as a computer science major at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s also been selected as part of UC Berkeley’s Fiat Lux program, which grants financial aid to deserving students from local high schools, and won a scholarship from the Professional Business Women of California.

How does a teenager qualify for this embarrassment of awards and support? She’s been busy.

The 17-year-old is most well known as the founder of She STEMS, an organization that empowers tech-loving high schoolers to teach younger girls about hardware computing at workshops and camps. But not content to juggle running a nonprofit with a load of Advanced Placement courses and a stack of college applications, Chu is also co-president of Alameda Science Ambassadors, an AHS group that leads science labs for elementary schoolers. And she’s on the school robotics team. And she belongs to DECA, a business and entrepreneurship club.

Outside of school, Chu helps organize GirlCon, an annual tech conference for girls that takes place in Chicago. She volunteers on weekends at the Chabot Space & Science Center. And she’s participated in the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s mentorship program, which has connected her with role models from Yahoo, Uber, Abbott, and Pixar. That last company is a potential dream employer for Chu.

“Getting to visit Pixar was like full circle, because animation and graphics were my first interests in computer science,” Chu said.

As a little kid, Chu used to race home from school every day to log onto Club Penguin, a now defunct Disney virtual world game for kids.

“All my life, I’ve described myself as two things: someone who’s really curious, and someone who’s a Disney fanatic,” Chu said. “I was really interested in that game, but I was frustrated with the designs and the color schemes.” As a middle schooler, Chu learned to edit the game’s appearance on her screen, which led to an interest in computer graphics software and coding. In her sophomore year of high school, she joined the Girls Who Code club, trekking to a San Leandro library on weekends to learn to make a website with javascript. She also joined Kode with Klossy, a free camp launched by model Karlie Kloss. She was hooked, not just on the technical challenges but on the new friendship opportunities.

“I found a lot of girls who where interested in tech,” Chu said.

She tries to draw in friends who aren’t into tech. For instance, when she creates a new app, she asks friends to try it out.

“That’s helped them get interested in computer science too,” Chu said.

Although her activities show a pattern of leadership that no doubt caught Amazon’s attention, Chu thinks of herself more of a shy girl than an outspoken leader. It’s just that she gets lonely if she’s one of the only girls programming a robot or sitting in AP computer science class.

“I’ve been frustrated in not being able to have friends doing the things that I like to do,” she said. In talking to mentors and looking around her, it began to dawn on her that it’s not necessarily lack of interest that’s stopping more girls from getting into tech. Sometimes it’s lack of confidence, or a feeling that girls don’t belong in tech activities. She noticed how boys in her classes always seemed willing to raise their hands, even if they didn’t have the right answer. That inspired her to reach out to girls her age and younger, encouraging them to give tech a try.

“I want people to know whether they’re a boy or a girl, they can be confident in whatever they want to do,” Chu said.

Leadership was one of the qualities Amazon was looking for in its scholarship recipients, along with academic performance and community involvement. Amazon was also looking for students who will diversify the technology workforce.

“The program is specifically intended to reach both students from underserved communities and also underrepresented communities in the tech field — we are focused on specifically making sure more young women and underrepresented minority students are a part of this program,” said spokesperson Allison Flicker.

As an incoming freshman, Chu isn’t yet 100 percent committed to applying her technical chops to a career in computer graphics — although for a Disney fan, working in entertainment would be a pretty sweet gig. She could also see herself applying her love of robotics to making humanoid caregivers for the health care industry.

But that goes back to Disney, too: Her inspiration for that career idea is Baymax, the cuddly health care droid from Disney’s Big Hero 6.  

“He’s my favorite,” the teen said with a laugh.

 

The free She STEMS computer science camp for girls ages 11 to 15 will take place July 22 to 26, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Apply at Bit.ly/shestemscamp.

Add your comment: