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Social Media Integrity Blog, Episode 6: Allie Kench

Allie Kench is a rising third year in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. She was a part of WISE RP [Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program] for the past two years, is one of the co-chairs of ADE (Advocates for Diversity in Engineering), and is involved in the musical theatre group MUSKET. Allie is also a personal blogger through her @umich_steminist Instagram account. She strives to empower other women in STEM by candidly sharing her experiences on campus, in the classroom, and in internships.

Can you tell us a little bit about your @umich_steminist account?

When I was in high school, there weren’t a lot of other women who were interested in pursuing STEM fields, and definitely not computer science. I didn’t know anyone or have anyone in my life who was in computer science or technology. So I didn’t have a mentor or anyone to help guide me through applying to school for CS. 

And then what happens when I go to school? What opportunities exist out there? What can I do with computer science? I didn’t really have that where I was from, so it was difficult for me at times to figure those things out. I had to learn as I went. So once I got to U-M, I was so lucky to have the community at WISE RP, and I was lucky to meet women at Michigan who really inspired me, like my friend Isha. 

Once I got to U-M, I had all these resources available to me and I would think, “I wish I had these in high school. I wish I’d known these things before getting to U-M.” So that’s where this idea came from. I wanted to share the experiences that I’m having, the people that I’m meeting, and this knowledge that I’m growing to benefit other women. I wanted younger women to see what opportunities existed for them, see what is possible, and hopefully inspire them, in their own journey, to think about those things and to take advantage of everything STEM and computer science has to offer.

Being a woman in STEM, you are a minority in the field. How does this experience change the way that you interact with the other women in STEM?

That’s such an interesting question. There’s this phenomenon, and there are people much smarter than I am who can explain it better than I can. Basically, when you’re a minority in a field and you think of it like “seats at a table,” when there are less seats that exist for you, the women who want those seats feel like they need to compete with the other women for those seats, rather than everybody in the pool. 

I’ve seen it at school. I’ve seen it in WISE RP. I’ve seen it in classes. I’ve seen it in internships. It’s very odd to me, but of course, it has to do with the imposter syndrome that we feel as women in STEM. It has to do with the fact that so many women go through high school as the only woman in their CS classes or their STEM classes, and then all of a sudden they get to a place where there’s more women. You think that would be so exciting, but sometimes it’s just not received that way. 

Why be another obstacle in the way of someone when we already have so many challenges in our journeys? Because really, I see it as: there’s less seats at the table, so let’s work together, let’s get to those seats, and then let’s pull up the people behind us. Let’s help the next person get to where you are. If you get a seat, make a new seat.

Have you been able to talk about that through your account on Instagram?

It’s tough, because a part of a big part of my account is that I want to inspire women to study STEM and to join the community. So it’s not always great to be like, “Come join us, but also you might be a target of other women.” It’s not necessarily a great selling point for the community. But it is something that’s real, and it’s something that happens. I think it’s something you have to address, otherwise it’s not going to go away.

How do you decide what content you share and the messaging that goes along with it?

I try to keep it super real and authentic. It’s my personal journey that I’m sharing. So, it’s all things that have really happened to me or are happening to me, and I try to share it as authentically as possible. When I’m deciding what to share and what not to share, it’s really centered around what I think could be helpful to other people. I try to think about what I struggled with and what I wish I knew at certain times in my life. 

Back in December, I knew that the first round of U-M decisions were coming out. When I applied, I got deferred in December and I took it so personally. I felt like it was this big no, and that my dream was over, because I’d been dreaming of Michigan for a long time. I wish someone would have told me what I figured out later, which is you have to trust the process. You have to have faith in yourself. You can’t let these decisions define you or undermine all the hard work you’ve put in, and that’s what I let it do. So when decisions came out, I put out a post about what happened to me when I got deferred and what I had eventually realized.

How do you interact with the followers on your account? What impact have you seen?

I get comments. I get a lot of DMs. I get a lot of emails. I put too much of my personal information on the internet, so people find ways to contact me. I really try hard to respond to them meaningfully and quickly. A lot of times people want to talk to me or ask me about a specific thing. Interacting with people on a personal level is really important to me, and I do my best to do that as much as possible.

My first week back as a sophomore, I was with some girls from WISE RP, taking them to an event as one of their peer mentors. And this group of people came up to me and said, “Hey, we all follow you. We’re freshmen. We just got here. We applied to Michigan because we saw your content, and then it helped us decide to come here.” 

And that was really crazy to me because I was like “someone other than my mom reads these.” I respected them a lot, and it was really meaningful for me, because that’s why I started doing it. I wanted to connect with people and to hopefully help at least one person.

Being a public platform, you are exposed to both ends of it: it can connect you, but it can also make you subject to some difficult criticism that can feel personal and be difficult to deal with. How have you learned to handle this criticism or negative comments that you receive on the account?

I’ve gotten comments. I’ve gotten DMs. I’ve gotten people saying stuff to my face. I’ve gotten text messages. It happens. It’s tough because when you’re creating content, it’s very personal. It’s a piece of you that you’re trying to share in a really wholesome, authentic way. So it feels very personal whenever I get those criticisms because it’s a piece of me that I’ve chosen to put out there. Since I’ve chosen that, I understand that that’s a part of it, always. 

I say this to my brother, who also does content creation: “You’re never going to please everybody. There’s always going to be someone that has a problem with what you do or say or wear or look like.” It doesn’t matter how hard you try to be a good person or a positive person. There’s always going to be someone who will find something to criticize. It doesn’t bother me most of the time, but sometimes it still hurts, of course. 

There are just too many other things that are more important than to spend time and energy on the criticism. I’d rather take that time to reflect on myself. If something gets to me, okay, why did I let that get to me? What’s going on in my heart and in my head that allowed that to affect me? And I focus on the opinions of the people who know you. 

Going back to the type of content you decide to share, how do you find balance between addressing the difficulties and opportunities that come with being a woman in STEM? 

Yeah, that’s a really good question and something that I wrestle with a lot. There are negative and difficult parts of my journey and of my life that I very purposely do not put on social media. There are a lot of things that people don’t see and a lot of things that people don’t know because I am scared of spreading negativity or subjecting myself to criticism that would be too personal. 

I don’t bring up a problem or something that’s negative without some sort of solution attached to it. The lack of women in STEM is something I get asked about all the time. If we’re going to look at something negative, if we’re going to bring it up, if we’re going to talk about it, let’s talk about either how we can improve it or find a solution. That’s my rule of thumb, because I don’t think it’s productive to dwell on really negative things without having a productive piece to it as well. We can complain all day, “There’s not enough women in STEM,” but it’s not going to change unless we do something. It’s not going to change unless we take the outlook of  we’re going to make this better, we’re going to be a part of the change and help inspire others to be a part of it as well.

Is there a specific message that you would like to share with the other women in STEM in the U-M community?

There are two things I’d like to say: one to women who have not yet joined the STEM community, and one to women who have. 

To women who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to pursue STEM or really consider STEM or see themselves in STEM, which was the boat I was in in high school, there are so many opportunities in the STEM field to create what I call your “dream job,” which basically is a combination of your passions. I just did a post the other day about Pixar. The people who founded Pixar had a passion for movies and storytelling and bringing characters to life, but they were also computer scientists. So, they created the first computer-generated animation software, and that’s how Pixar was born. It was out of this combination of technology and passion for something else.

That’s how I see computer science as a field. There are so many things that you can do and you can combine them and create your dream job. I think that’s the most exciting thing about it: you don’t have to leave another passion behind to also have CS as your passion. You can combine them and you can have the best of everything and create a job that is really passion-filled and fulfilling. You can give back, hopefully, and take advantage of all those opportunities that are existing in this growing field. 

And then to women who already are in STEM and women at U-M, the advice that I give is something that I learned early on in high school from a lacrosse coach. She taught me to be brave. What that means in the context of being a woman in STEM is: you see a job or a position that’s interesting to you, apply. Even if you don’t think you’re qualified, or there’s doubts in your head, or impostor syndrome, or ten thousand reasons why you shouldn’t—do it anyway. If you see something new that’s interesting to you, try it. Or if there’s someone who inspires you, who you look up to, whether it’s someone who’s a CEO or someone in one of your classes, reach out to them. Learn from them. Ask them everything you want to know and grow from them.

Be ambitious and surround yourself with people who lift you up, who support you, who motivate you. I think bravery is the biggest thing that drives all of that. You just have to be able to be braver than the fear that lives in your head, because it’s going to be there. It’s going to be there your entire life. It pushed me to apply to Michigan. It pushed me to go to Michigan. It pushed me to take advantage of everything Michigan had and be really bold in what I’ve tried and how I’ve approached things.

That’s awesome. 

Thank you so, so much for being a part of this podcast, Allie. It was really great talking to you and learning so much about your account and your experience. 

Thank you so much for having me, Keara. This was so fun!


Post written by #UMSocial Intern Keara Kotten