Envisioning Equality in Computer Science


Alex (right) going for a walk with a friend

Originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, Alejandro Castaneda, (Alex) discovered Portland State University in high school while he was searching for Computer Science programs and schools in the Pacific Northwest that participated in the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program. He told me his mom said “I want you to go to school somewhere that is close enough that I can drive to you.” He went on and told me that he loved the way campus looked and the close proximity and connections with large companies like Nike and Intel. He wanted to attend college in a big city that was growing so that he would have lots of job opportunities after graduating. “Even today, the city of Portland is one of my favorite parts about attending PSU,” he says. The discounted tuition rate he has with WUE made it possible for him to attend PSU and that’s what helped make the decision.

When he was growing up, he would always help his family with technical stuff and grew to have an interest in computers, so choosing Computer Science was natural. However, when he got to college classes, he discovered that the content he would be learning was very different than what he was expecting. “It’s less...IT than I expected. More data. Like, less fixing and more making. But I love it. The most exciting part is being able to create whatever you want. There are infinite possibilities in the field of Computer Science.”

Alex and I talked for over an hour, but I feel like I only got a hint at his depth of knowledge and interest in the topics we covered. He has such a vast understanding of not only the subject matter he studies but the social and cultural significance around it, and what the implications are for the future of his field.

The main thing I noticed during our conversation is that Alex is committed to building equality in the field of computer science. He is involved with so many organizations I could barely keep track. He is the Mentorship Director at WiCS (We in Computer Science), a student group that works to challenge the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people, women, gender non-conforming, first-generation immigrants, people of color, and disabled people from the field of computer science. “We aim to build spaces where people feel as though ‘We Belong’ so it's exciting to partake in something that will change our community. In the mentorship program, my team works to pair students in need of a mentor with those who are seeking someone to help out, so it's extremely beneficial.”

He works with tech organizations off-campus as well. “By being part of the campus, you are also part of the city. You can easily meet so many other people who aren’t students.”

He is involved with the organization Out in Tech: a non-profit that aims to unite LGBTQ+ tech community. They do a lot of Portland community events and mixers. He also mentioned the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, a national organization of professional engineers to serve as role models in the Hispanic community. Engineers without Borders do various projects around the city. He said they worked on building solar lamps and a self-sustaining shower designed for homeless populations in the city.

At this point, you may be wondering how on earth he keeps up with all these commitments in addition to going to class and having a social life. He turned his phone toward me so I could see his Google Calendar — it was like a colorful Christmas tree, with overlapping calendar notifications, reminders, and color-coordinated events. In awe, I told him how impressed I was by his commitment and drive and managing this crazy schedule. He laughed and said “I get it from my mom. She is always working. I can't just sit around and do nothing. So I seem to always occupy myself in some way by taking more than I can handle and then managing all that and feeling so awesome when I do.”

We talked a little bit about his transition from Las Vegas to Portland. He came to Portland not knowing anyone and he said he felt alone for a little while, but decided to try and make friends and was able to meet tons of people through campus. At resource centers like the Global Diversity and Inclusion Club, there were always events going on. Living in Campus Housing his freshman year gave him a lot of points of connection and helped him build friendships with other students. “The university provides structure to the events on campus by posting fliers, and The School of Business highlights every event on campus to get you involved.”

He was telling me he knows so many people now from his involvement though classes, the Ambassador Program, and Campus Recreation, when, by sheer coincidence, he looked up and pointed to someone walking by on the sidewalk outside. “Like her, I actually know her, that’s Amber. We were in the same dorm our sophomore year.” He lives off-campus now, but the roommates he has are friends that he made from living on campus.

He told me something that I hear a lot of students say: “Professors really care about you and try to get to know you. They want to see you succeed. If you actually put in the time and effort, the professors will reciprocate your hard work.”

I was really moved by a story he told about his most pivotal moment at Portland State. “At the end of my Freshman Inquiry class, my professor, Dr. Kenny Bagley, came up to me and extended his hand and told me "Alex, you should get a Ph.D." I was completely taken aback because I barely considered getting my bachelors, and here my professor who's known me for only a year was recommending me to pursue a doctorate. This experience motivated me because I feel as though now I have many people invested in my life. He saw capabilities in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”

Here at PSU, we are so proud of students like Alex who work hard to make opportunities equal for everyone. Increasing representation and dismantling structural barriers is so important to building a better world for us all. People like Alex are shaping the future by emboldening others today, and at PSU, the possibilities for this are endless.

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