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From Swat to Silicon Valley

Alumni advise students on how to break into tech

Guided by alumni hosts in January, 11 students saw behind the scenes of Silicon Valley giants like Google and Apple to crack the code on a life in tech. Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership sponsored this week of experiential learning through the generous financial support of two alumni. Students visited six companies and bonded with dozens of alumni, learning firsthand about the intersection of tech and the liberal arts. 

On the Swarthmore bond...

Gil Jones ’01, senior software engineer at Google: “It’s pretty fun to hang out with current students. They exhibit all of the characteristics I associate with Swatties: grab bags of divergent interests (‘I want to write code, do a master’s in machine learning, and have a journalism career!’) and lots of intensity.”

David Pope ’89, imaging architect at Apple: “It was very nice spending time with students from Swarthmore as an alum. They are now living one of my favorite times in life. They are clearly very smart, articulate, and curious about how to move from Swarthmore to the rest of their lives. It was fun to compare what it was like at Swarthmore in the late ’80s compared to now.”

Peiwen Zhang ’18, economics and math major from Wuhan City, China: “I really appreciated how kind the alumni were to us. They hosted us at their companies, shared invaluable experience and advice, brought in colleagues to come talk to us, and even invited us for dinner at their houses.”


On what to look for in a first job...

Evan Wittenberg ’91, senior vice president and chief people officer at Box: “It’s tricky, because you’re leaving a place where you know exactly what you need to do to be a success, which is not necessarily the case at your first job. That’s on top of the fear that the real world won’t be as nurturing as Swarthmore, and how you will handle leaving the nest.”

Jimmy Shah ’18, physics major from West Berlin, N.J.: “One of the fears I’ve had is the need to land that perfect internship with the top tech company. But we learned that’s not the case. So many of the alums had crazy career paths: starting at a small company, launching a startup, doing a couple of other things, and then winding up in a big position. The liberal arts led them. They had the tools they needed to learn new material quickly, on their feet.”


On the value of the Center for Innovation and Leadership (CIL)...

Katie Clark, CIL coordinator: “I've heard many alums utter the phrase, ‘I wish the CIL had existed when I was at Swarthmore.’ The CIL provides a new kind of support on campus, where students can hone the practical skills that will help them inside and outside of the classroom.”

Gil Jones ’01, senior software engineer at Google: “Swarthmore has a tricky balance to strike: to give students a structured environment in which to learn for the sake of learning and to prepare them for the world. I think it's useful to have junctures where Swatties can stick their heads up and think about their goals and desires for the future. The CIL trip seems an excellent example of how to do this without undermining the protected intellectual environment of the campus.”


On striking the work-life balance ...

Katie Clark, CIL coordinator: “It was great to see students engaging so deeply with alums on the trip, asking questions like, ‘What does a typical day look like? What time do you get up? Do you go to the gym? Do you eat at work?’ It gave students a clearer picture of work/life balance—that there is life outside of work.”

Mercer Borris ’16, engineering major from New York, N.Y.: “It was interesting to see the differences between the companies. I don’t care just about the work but also the environment, and there was a big difference between Mountain View and San Francisco. The city environment is definitely what I want. It feels more diverse, which really matters to me.”


On seeing the liberal arts in action ...

Mayank Agrawal ’18, a math and computer science major from Sugar Land, Tex.: “Practically all of the alumni praised the liberal arts experience at Swat and how it transitions into the working world. With the rapid changes in the tech industry, workers must be able to have a diverse array of skills and constantly adapt to new situations. The liberal arts education was vital in preparing alumni to thrive in this environment.”

Cathy Polinsky ’99, vice president of engineering at Salesforce: “Software is transforming every industry. I saw that at my first job, watching Amazon rewrite how retailing and entertainment work. Now I see medicine, banking, transportation and taxi services, civil infrastructure, and even government being similarly transformed. I know that Swarthmore alums are involved in many of these areas.”

Liz Braun, dean of students: “It’s no surprise that our alums would be attracted to these companies that focus on innovation and teamwork. When we asked them what they enjoyed most about their roles, many told us about how much the environment reminded them of their Swarthmore experience of being surrounded by really smart, passionate, and creative people who inspired them."