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CUNY's Ayani Bilal: From Community College to University to Microsoft

Ayani Bilal's journey into tech is in some ways unique, but many of our students can relate. Although she began her college career intending to attend med school, Ayani discovered that the path encouraged by friends and family just wasn't for her. 

After some setbacks, followed by a period of self-reflection, Ayani enrolled in LaGuardia Community College's CS program. Today, Ayani is a full-time CS student at CUNY Hunter, with companies like Microsoft already on her resume. 

While managing a full course load, Ayani completed our iOS course and is looking forward to taking our Cybersecurity course next. She says that CodePath has been instrumental in her ability to gain the real-world skills necessary to land impressive internships; CodePath has provided a much-needed supportive community during the times when her schoolwork and internships felt overwhelming. 

In this interview with the CodePath team, Ayani provides refreshingly honest and solid advice from which we all can learn. Whether you are attending a community college, a four-year university, or considering your next step –Ayani's story and insights will resonate. 

Where does your computer science journey begin?

Growing up, I was very into math and science, and everyone in my family encouraged me to be a doctor. I went to school for three semesters but flunked out. 

I didn't have infinite money to spend on my education, so I had to stop and really think and decide what am I going to focus on? What do I really want to do?

I realized that the logic and problem-solving in computer science is probably better suited to me.

How was the transition from biology to computer science?

The part of biology I probably liked best was the deeper understanding required –the learning. I still get a lot of this in computer science, so I don't feel like it was a hard transition for me personally.

Can you describe how you've navigated the experience of going from community college to a four-year institution as a CS student?

Coming from community college, a lot of my classes were a lot smaller. Also, until the last semester at LaGuardia, classes were completely virtual because I started in Fall 2020. I feel that was more of an adjustment than coming from LaGuardia to Hunter. 

I found out quickly that I had to be proactive. In community college, because I was in a program that provides extra support, advisors reach out to you and make sure you are on top of things. At a larger school, you might not have that --you are a number to your advisor, and you really have to be proactive in getting the support you need.

What led to you becoming a CodePath student?

I was in a Discord server for computer science students, and the admins were posting about CodePath classes. I was intrigued because I couldn't afford to take any more elective courses, but because CodePath was free, I could learn iOS and other important skill sets. 

How did you balance taking your college courses and CodePath courses at the same time?

Honestly, I struggled at first. But I always made sure that I completed my assignments, even if what I turned in wasn't perfect. I know a lot of people struggle with perfectionism. That's an issue for me too. The fear of starting creeps in, and you think, "It's not gonna be good. I don't really know what I'm doing." Now, completion is my goal, not perfection. Done is better than perfect!

How have CodePath courses impacted your education and career trajectory?

A lot of what we do in class, as a computer science major, is very intangible and conceptual, so it doesn't necessarily connect to what you might be doing in your day-to-day job. Now [after CodePath's courses], I know how to code in Swift and how that is used in a career as a software engineer. Learning about the work of a software engineer helps me understand what I have to look forward to and keeps me motivated. 

Speaking of Swift, what languages are you most focused on? 

Yes, so through the CodePath course, I learned Swift. Then I was offered a position in the New Technologists internship with Microsoft. In that internship, I mostly learned React. My coursework has been in C++ and Java, and now I'm taking Python. I use Python a lot for technical interview prep, so that is my primary language.

How was the experience with your Microsoft internship? Also, many of our students would love some tips on landing an internship with a top tech company like Microsoft.

The opportunity was posted in my school's CodePath discord channel. At first, I wasn't sure if I was qualified, but I applied anyway. The internship, geared towards freshmen and sophomores, doesn't expect applicants to know everything– they want to know that you're willing to learn. 

When I started the program, I was immediately overwhelmed. One of the things that they say during onboarding is, "you're gonna feel like you're drinking from a firehose" –and it did feel like that. I missed a lot, but I also caught a lot along the way. 

I was able to work with Microsoft for two summers because, as a former community college student, I was eligible for their Next Level internship. 

How do you feel that this internship impacted the trajectory of your career?

It's opened doors for me to have Microsoft on my resume. Also, working in a professional environment with deadlines, and having to collaborate using GitHub, all those things, is great practice. 

What has been your favorite experience with CodePath so far?

My favorite experience with CodePath was getting invited to tour the New York Stock Exchange. I met other CUNY and CodePath students in person and learned about their CS experiences. 

During the tour, I also learned a lot about how people in this space use their connections to get from place to place. It was a good lesson to learn early –it's not just about getting straight A's. You've also got to come out of your shell and meet people. 

What is one piece of advice you would give to community college CS students?

In community college, especially, you're surrounded by different kinds of people. Some of the people in your classes are going to be 60 years old, with four kids and three grandkids. Some of the people in your class will be 19, fresh out of high school. It's important to listen to people's stories and learn from them.

My mom always says to me, "You can do anything!" Genuinely, you have to walk into a situation with the confidence that whatever needs to get done, you can get done. You might need extra time, you might need to speak to somebody, and get some extra help or resources, but having the confidence that you can do whatever you need to get the job done is so important.

What is next for you on your CS journey? 

I have a couple of offers for this upcoming summer. One of them is for software engineering, and one is for cybersecurity. I'm looking forward to living in different places and trying new things. 

Lastly, what do you feel is unique about your path into tech?

The fact that I came into it a little bit later. According to standard timelines, I was about halfway through my college journey when I figured out that CS was where I belonged. I used to be self-conscious about that, but my unique journey is my edge now.

Learn more about the courses and varying opportunities available at CodePath.