Making it Her Own

Monday, August 23, 2010


Sometimes life forces you to leap without looking. Cristina Gonzalez is getting good at it.

Back in 2003, when she was 12 years old and living in her native city of Maracay, Venezuela, Gonzalez watched as her mother came home one day and announced that she and her two daughters (Cristina and her sister) were moving. Life under President Hugo Chavez, who’d been in power since 1998, had become intolerable, and Gonzalez’s family picked up and moved to Miami a week later.

“I had traveled to Miami before, but I had never moved anywhere,” Gonzalez says. “We’d lived in the same house, I went to the same school and had the same group of friends, all my life.”

Five years later, Gonzalez was weighing her options for college. Someone—she doesn’t remember who—had suggested she apply to Georgia Tech, a school where she knew exactly one person, the sister of a friend. She’d never been to Atlanta. In fact, she’d never lived anywhere that was not predominantly Hispanic.

Naturally, in a few months she arrived on Tech’s campus as a freshman computer science major.

“I didn’t know anyone on campus; it reminded me of moving from Venezuela,” she says. “I didn’t get involved in many student organizations. I was very shy.”

That shyness lasted about a year, until fall 2009, when Gonzalez, then a sophomore, started paying attention to a friend’s emails about Women@CC—“I’d always made excuses to myself,” Gonzalez said, “always came up with a reason not to get involved”—and finally made it to one of the organization’s meetings. Turns out, she knew a few more women who were active. “And from there,” she says, “it just snowballed.”
Now a confident, accomplished third-year student fresh off another novel adventure (to Barcelona for the College of Computing’s summer abroad program; more on that in a bit), Gonzalez ticks off the list of organizations to which she now volunteers her time: Women@CC, Minorities@CC, Hispanics@CC, GTACMFIREwall. She’s also mentoring a pair of freshman Hispanic women, who represent two of the 15 Hispanics among the College’s entering undergraduate CS class.

And she’s already come up with a favorite piece of counsel for them.

“Don’t get intimidated by the students around you,” Gonzalez says. “During my first year, I had to tell myself, ‘If I’m here, it’s because when I applied, [Georgia Tech] thought I could do as well or better than the other students.”

Also: “Don’t be afraid to pursue options just because they’re unfamiliar.” That might be the next advice from Gonzalez, who’s chosen Media and Theory as her two Thread choices. The first? Quite common among her fellow undergrads. The second? Not so much.

“But they both interested me,” Gonzalez explains, “so I thought, why not put them together? Instead of two that ‘fit’ better but don’t interest me as much.”

Gonzalez’s interests might be broadened a bit, now that she’s returned from a summer in Barcelona as part of the College’s study abroad program. She spent six weeks in the Spanish coastal city as full-time student/tourist and part-time translator for the two dozen fellow undergraduates who accompanied her—walking for hours around Barcelona, admiring its Moorish architecture and culture, escaping to other European destinations on long weekends, and even finding time to crack a book or two for her classes.

"I chose to take all the CS classes offered this summer, even the ones that did not satisfy my thread requirements,” Gonzalez said. “I'm glad I did—the classes taught me a different thought process, a different point of view I can use to analyze computing that, although not required by my specifications, affords me a more well-rounded set of tools with which to tackle problems in Computer Science.  It has made me look forward to the rest of my thread electives.

"Barcelona is a lovely city and UPC (our host university over there) is very much like Georgia Tech in many ways, including its culture,” she continued. “As a CS major, I have the option of getting a dual MS degree from both universities—a possibility I'm seriously considering for the future!"

To get to know more about Cristina Gonzalez, check out her blog, “Life Algorithm.”