My college journey through majors and career interests

My story and some reflections from the heart

Kendall Nakai 🌸
12 min readNov 8, 2022

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me with my stole on seattle waterfront where i moved for work post-graduation

i graduated back in march and made an instagram “reel” video, similar to the short-form videos on tiktok. The short-form video was to reflect on my personal college experience as I was making it then share it. this article is “long-form” version of each video section.

the video: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CbbGaJMDJrL/

some screenshots from the instagram reel i made

computer engineering

the short

  • entered first year as a ce major
  • interested in ce from hs robotics
  • attended related eng clubs
  • struggled using microcontrollers for class projects and hackathons
  • learned programming languages like c, c++, java, python
  • failed first, easiest physics quiz even after 2 yrs of hs physics
  • joined a biomed eng lab but learned i wasn’t interested in ce

the long

since high school, i knew i wanted to do something creative (naturally gravitated toward artsy stuff) but also wanted to do something technical because of (a) parental pressure (my dad is an engineer — a blessing and a curse since he had high expectations to excel in stem courses but also was able to understand and help with the course content i was going through) and (b) peer pressure (i had joined robotics so didn’t want to stray off the path everyone else was taking after high school). engineering had the potential to be creative, technical, and grant financial and job security.

the curriculum was fun, but only after being crushing. calculus classes felt like they droned on for hours yet went by in a flash if i didn’t keep up with the notes i hardly understood. i worked hard, failed a lot, and beat myself up for not working hard enough. i understood monotonous fundamentals were important but with 50% on midterms being average and classmate’s hobbies including complaining about how difficult assignments were, the feelings of not belonging academically became unbearable.

i liked going to various stem events to see what opportunities (and free food) was out there and through a sequence of taking advantage of serendipitous events, i was fortunate to join a research lab early on. unfortunately, my interest dwindled with the projects given and i didn’t have enough experience to know what i could spearhead on my own. as much as i tried to be curious about the topics, by dragging my feet, i wasn’t honoring my commitments to the lab.

i truly wanted to be a computer engineer. i joined the engineering clubs, used some of my scholarship award money to go to engineering summer school, andof course, collected the engineering memes. i swore to myself i wouldn’t be put off by the weeder courses. after long days of math, physics, and computer science classes i would sit by my dad’s graduation year plaque and would think to myself i would exit college as an engineer no matter how long or what it took.

i had two goals:

  1. there are many ways to contribute to the world and i wanted to do that through engineering and building things
  2. i thought if i graduated as an engineer i would prove to myself and others i was “smart”

with the help of others showing me what amazing ways of creating are out there other than engineering and encouraging the skills that come naturally to me, i learned two things:

  1. there were other chances to build cool stuff. “creating” didn’t always mean engineering like i thought
  2. i am capable and naturally curious in ways that don’t pertain to and will take me further than engineering and i don’t need to prove anything

my motivation to move away from engineering came at 5 am after an all-nighter studying for a calculus 2 final. i was looking at different majors, searching for a way out (or at least, a way where i wouldn’t have to take the physics 2 series). i discovered cognitive science, a major that combined computer science and psychology and just seemed perfect. at the same time, someone explained i could be well suited to do front-end programming or coding the interface of applications. as a compromise, i decided to try computer science.

computer science

the short

  • thought i might like high-level coding like data stories or web dev
  • took full-stack open and data science project course
  • co-founded computing student + did a pm and swe joint internship
  • tried to code front-end at hackathons but always ended up designing (won a few that way)
  • learned i like interaction design

the long

cs classes were brutal: i would spend 20 hours every week on single assignments, and would work everyday until it was done. sometimes i feel like i only got through because i submitted enough tickets to tutors that slowly each one was able to help me through each piece of logic. maybe it was true, maybe it was imposter syndrome talking but i learned a lot nonetheless.

it got better. through each tutor showing me their way of thinking, i started to physically drawing out what i would need, understanding how to make a list of functions that connected to each other, and visualizing out my logic so i could implement it.

during my time as a to-be cs major, i went through a few different phases: the “wow let’s throw out as many cs keywords as possible to sound smart” phase, the “i have a life balance and shower, therefore i’m cooler than cs kids” phase, and the “i read tech news so i’m in-the-know” phase. it was regrettably cringe but i also think it was a coping mechanism of trying to fit in.

as a result of the go-to-career-fair-and-networking-event-grind, i taught kids how to code for a summer and completed a software engineering internship. it was empowering to get to where peers and parents wouldn’t have imagined i’d ever get to, but around every corner came knocking feelings of inadequacy and whether i got to where i was as a diversity hire.

my interest in design continued through my internship but so did demeaning comments like this followed me: “you want to be a ux designer? just like every other asian girl in tech?”

some cs experiences were difficult for me:

  • i simply couldn’t make it: i want to say i didn’t do computer science because i know it wasn’t right for me, cognitive science served my 4 years better, and majors teach not just classes but a specific way of thinking. but i knew i was only passing because of the ridiculous amount of time spent on programming assignments and the time spent wasn’t sustainable. at some point i would hit a wall and i didn’t want to be someone who used classmates code to help either. what would i be if my entire degree was built off work that’s not mine?
  • i hit a wall: during one of my programming assignments, everything kind of built up and to put it lightly, went blah. overwhelming feelings of ~insert all words relating to inadequacy and exhaustion~ hit me. i didn’t know there was a name for the extreme end of these feelings at the time but i knew it was dangerous. i had to ask myself what was worth it to me and turned to confront deeper problems.
  • my feelings of failure in high-school robotics engineering followed me: not being good at “non-technical” aspects of robotics then my major used to make me cry — there wasn’t a single robotics competition or hackathon that i didn’t feel like a failure for not understanding how to code functions, connecting to work a microcontroller, or wiring gearboxes. i should’ve spoken up on how to get better instruction to do this work. it seemed like the boys of robotics just kind of picked things up and maybe they did, but i deserved a chance too.
  • college hackathons replicated those feelings of high-school failure: i quickly found out in entering hackathons that learning how to code things in 24 hours was not my thing. it was morally defeating every time to feel as useless as i would during robotics competitions. i would go in the bathroom to cry about said uselessness, get angry at myself for wasting time moping around when i could be learning, then go back to where i started

these weren’t my proudest moments but i think they are important to share because i’m sure i’m not the only one that has had these feelings. if any of lived experiences can help anyone in any way to know someone has gone through something similar, i want it to be a little tidbit of writing out there for someone.

i thought by continually applying myself, i could get better. i did, but i shouldn’t have let myself keep driving myself into the ground trying to prove myself. that would only prove that i’m not listening to what i need.

i feel like i chose computer science as the in-between because i knew i wasn’t right for computer engineering but i was too scared to commit to design as a major. and that’s okay. i needed that time to self-discover and explore.

ux / product design

the short

  • learned prototyping, ui design, and door the design thinking process
  • front-loaded A LOT of projects and courses for internship apps
  • transferred to the cognitive science major which hosts specializations in design and interaction
  • ta’ed product design courses
  • applied to design internships but ended up doing design-dev as a swe
  • got burnt out of making ui’s
  • looked for alternatives, read the phd grind, and found interest in research

the long

at the same time as taking my programming classes, i started my first product design course. in my experience, things that i like usually seem to just *click* — i have a difficult time forcing anything. within minutes of the first lecture, i knew this career was the one. i had a lot to learn but it just felt right.

i quickly front-loaded 6 design project courses in 2 quarters so that i could have case studies ready to apply to design internships. i did these before the neuroscience courses because it would help me catch up on the year that i had missed. it originally had been a fast-track way but ended up being the best way to gain experience. sometimes i feel like i missed out on the fundamentals of cognitive theories learned in introductory courses but by skipping on them, i gained time to be able to move to bigger projects early.

design forced me to open myself up to constructive criticism. on purpose. like asking for not just thoughts and praise but people to voice their nitty gritty rebukes. it toughened me up and made me appreciate bluntness. it forced me to present before i was ready because that was built into the process.

i was glad to have a coding background because while not necessary it also forced me to be specific but simple. internships taught me to get exact expectations and execute quickly.

after 2 quarters of fast-tracking design experience, i helped spearhead acm’s portal redesign. i treated it like a job: i would wake up, work on it, meet about it, etc. i was proud and passionate but burned me out, and made me question whether there was more to life and my future career than making screens day in and day out. at the same time i had been reading articles about doing a phd in and made me curious. so that’s how i began my interest in research.

i only got one design internship offer and it was for fall. however, i also got an offer to be a ta for the class i had taken as my first design course. something in my heart told me it would be an awesome learning experience and that risk paid off as that opportunity lead to my first research poster.

human-computer interaction (hci) research

the short

  • joined two hci research labs
  • learned how to conduct interviews and connect themes
  • used design experience to design tools, workshops, and a guide through artifacts and methods
  • took graduate-level courses
  • read a lot of research papers to understand terms and learn about different contributions
  • submitted papers and pictorials to academic conferences

the long

with newfound interest, i looked to try out research. i knew design lab was the first place to look since it involved faculty so applied for a summer team. it ended up being more graphic design but i found another spot by filling out an application to work with a professor i had taken classes of. i got paired with a postdoc who advised me. i started out building uis and learning the process in how a question gets turned into a project that can be tested and results analyzed and written out.

i began to hit my stride when i learned how to conduct interviews. my advisor was encouraging and gave me a lot of advice on how to bring out natural conversation in interviews with people i had never met. the content taken from these went onto help me design uis and workshops for new technology ecosystems.

i took another class with the professor i ta’d for and they noticed my interested questions in the small, seminar-style research reading course. i was invited to make design education material and become a research assistant. i had many meaningful chats with design students and their lived experiences and used that to write a guide and create a design methodology to scale such guides.

a fellow undergrad took graduate courses and i was inspired, so i took 3 of the hci ones and was able to read hundreds of research papers through those, expanding my idea of what research in hci meant.

through this time, i didn’t know whether i wanted to be a product designer, software engineer, or apply to phd programs. but i knew that as long as i was working on something i was interested, i was making progress and was confident in that. because of this, i had a lot less self-tension at what i could do to be perceived in a certain career and simply enjoyed doing and learning.

this section was easy to write about because it was straightforward; it came naturally. my confused feelings leveled out and were replaced with consistent effort and determination. i felt genuinely alive in the work i did, got excited about finding interests, recognizing patterns between what i was learning in graduate classes and what i was doing between two research projects, and seeing how novel work from research papers i read influenced technology later on.

my work eventually lead to 3 submissions to conferences: 2 papers and 1 pictorial. unfortunately, all of them were rejected. however, one qualified to be a poster/short paper and i presented it at a conference in new york.

the future

my senior year ended really well.

i tried out 9 new sporty activities, hiked a lot around san diego, and traveled to 19 countries in europe for 2 months. some bad blips happened too but i have many privileges and blessings to count so i tried to stay focused.

i accepted a return offer to be a software engineer in seattle and started this july. i want to be able to incorporate my design background into my everyday work. i am so blessed for this opportunity. i hope to do research as well so i can apply to phd programs in the future.

looking back on it, it all makes sense seeing where i resisted and when i stopped resisting and started listening to what i truly wanted. while it took time to recognize, it was part of the self-discovery process to be able to know myself better. recently, my career choices were criticized by someone i deeply care about. but in the end, i’m the only one that has to live with my choices everyday and i’m happy i found what comes naturally so i can believe in what i’m doing everyday. i also have extremely supportive people in my life. i appreciate it a lot.

i know i’m going to do amazing things by taking the same small steps i have been and reflecting. it takes a lot to realize this but i hope anyone reading this looks within themselves and finds one thing that they’re remotely interested in or good at and holds onto it, letting it blossom into the confidence needed to live their truth 🌸

this was written in june of 2022. i wasn’t sure if i wanted to have this be public or just keep it as a note. it’s scary putting things on the internet open to anyone’s interpretation and critique. but i can only become better by being open to such :-)

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Kendall Nakai 🌸

👩🏻‍💻 kendallnakai.com | writing the random things i would write in google docs but **aesthetic**