I’m an interest changer — and I’m proud of it

[Writer’s Note: This article is part of a series of articles about my personal and professional growth through my time as a content publishing intern at Microsoft, and how this experience is influenced by my identity as a person of color. I hope that this will serve as an outlet for reflection and a reminder to bring all of myself to the table, while also providing a few helpful tidbits for anyone else doing an internship or exploring the tech industry.]

I try to write articles with a specific takeaway or lesson learned like “your roles models are closer than you think” or “we all contribute to creating a supportive workplace culture.” But this time, I want to tell you the story of how I switched from being pre-med to pursuing Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) at the University of Washington and now interning at Microsoft — cue Taylor Swift because everything has changed.

This is the story that I often share in my one-on-one meetings when asked if I enjoy interning at Microsoft, to which I reply, “well, I used to be pre-med, so anything without Organic Chemistry is a win in my book” before diving into the narrative you’re about to read. It’s a story I’ve had a lot of practice telling because I’ve had to explain my discipline shift to every one of my pre-med friends who made up my community for the past two years, not to mention my parents, academic advisers, and childhood best friends. I think it sheds some light on my diligent pursuit fulfilling career and life, and the fact that I won’t settle until I find something that I love every single day.

Medicine as a familiar framework of understanding:

This time last year, I was a declared Public Health and Biochemistry double major on the pre-med track.

This summer, I was supposed to kill the MCAT, write a beautifully crafted personal statement about resilience and empathy in medicine, and have my sights set on an MD/MPH program that would get me on a path to career fulfillment.

I’m not doing any of that.

For a long time, medicine was the only thing I could do well, so I assumed it was my only outlet for having a high-impact career. It was the field associated with life-givers and people who selflessly put aside their own needs for the health of strangers. Since both of my parents are doctors, my career trajectory didn’t budge during the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in the back of my parents’ private clinics learning about gait and equilibrium dysfunction as well as hypertension as a comorbidity with other health conditions like diabetes.

But even after two years of completing the Calculus, Chemistry, and Biology series in college, I struggled to embrace this field as my own. I waited for the moment when the hours spent in labs and libraries and study rooms would finally feel make me think, “I can see why it’s worth it.” But I never felt that way.

Instead, found myself sneaking out of classes as soon as possible so I could do interviews for articles I was writing for the school newspaper, work with people to help them craft a personal statement that connected their long-term goals with the opportunities in their dream major, and talk to my friends about the significance of self-care and finding a passion. These were the moments when I felt the most fulfilled because I was empowering others through my writing and the stories we created.

I always knew that I loved being a maker and a storyteller but it took a while to commit to this as my field of interest. But between interviews and distant calls for afternoon coffee orders, I had the conversation that precipitated my shift from being pre-med to pursuing engineering with more fervor than ever. This was the day that I embraced my dream of being an engineer, and started to believe that I could succeed at it. Let me paint you a little picture: I was interviewing Katherine Pratt, a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering at UW, for an article that I was writing about the Women’s Mentoring lunch series at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. I was initially asking her about why mentorship was important for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, but the conversation shifted to talking about how I was struggling to find fulfillment in my pre-med trajectory — plot twist, I often find myself having this conversation, which was a sign that I might not be in the right field. I explained that I had always wanted to be an engineer, but I thought I couldn’t succeed in this field because I was too dumb and not creative enough to be a “maker.”

In response, Katherine introduced me to the idea of imposter syndrome, which is the term for that impending feeling that everything that you’ve earned or worked for was an accident — in other words, you feel like an impostor in your own field. These emotions described my feelings perfectly. When I entertained the idea of pursuing my dream major of Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE), I would wonder, “Who am I to dream of creating something out of nothing or engineering a product that improves people’s quality of life?” But once Katherine told me that she knew a lot of incredibly intelligent and powerful women who struggled with this, I didn’t feel so alone. In the moment, being able to name my imposter syndrome was what I needed to start overcoming it.

Giving myself permission to switch:

I realized that I had to give myself a chance at finding a fulfilling career in HCDE. If I failed, I couldn’t blame myself if I gave it absolutely everything I had. I remember writing the following note to myself in size 48 font on my computer, wondering if this itch to switch was worth listening to:

4 personal statements, 2 years of college, and 153 credits later, I’ve finally admitted that I want to be an HCDE major — and what’s crazy is that I’ve always known that I want to do this, but I didn’t think that I could. I know it’s been a windy road, but I’ve finally made it.

That day, I found the nearest building on campus with Wi-Fi, pulled up my academic schedule, and dropped my Physics and Biochemistry courses so I could register for CSE 142, the last prerequisite class I needed to apply to HCDE. Selecting “update schedule” seemed like the moment when I would completely let of my pre-med identity and, in a way, it was. But I was all in: I had to try to become an engineer, and I wouldn’t be the only thing in my own way.

The months to follow were tough and a little bit lonely, which can be the case when you’re forging a path for yourself. I remember when I spent 10 minutes explaining my love of HCDE and how every ounce of me knew that the program would feel like home. In response, my friend who had taken Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Biology with me responded with, “so, what’s it like taking easy classes?”

Let me pause for a second — I promise you that these words still echo through my mind, even as when I took introductory programming classes without any prior experience, balanced 3 jobs with 18 credits so I could knock out as many engineering prerequisites as possible, and was asked to independently identify current challenges in my community and respond with actionable design recommendations. Is this what easy looked like? I was used to being told that I couldn’t just be a writer, but I never thought that people would question my desire to pursue engineering, let alone a program that was perfect for me.

Luckily, most of the people in my life could tell that HCDE was the field for me. When I mentioned my shift, more cautiously this time, most people said things like, “you really light up when you talk about this major” or “I know you’re capable of doing this.” In the toughest moments, my community supported me — maybe all we can do is find communities that empower us and do the best we can where we are.

Bringing all of myself to the table:

Fast forward a year later: I’m an HCDE major (still can’t get over that) who’s interning at Microsoft who walks around with a lot more confidence in my skill set and long-term goals. Sometimes, I forget the story of a little brown girl who didn’t think she could indulge in the reality of being an engineer or working at a company like this. But now, when people ask about what brought me to this internship, I say that the fear of missing out on a fulfilling career and life was greater than my fear of failure. Although I’m still embarrassed that I have to spend an extra two quarters in undergrad, I try to remember that everything takes as long as it needs to. I will graduate. I will get an engineering degree. And I will be someone that my younger self would look up to.

I am an interest changer — but I’m also a resilient storyteller who’s trying to learn from other narratives. I’m a future engineer/user experience designer who will always put people first. I’m an educator who’s always learning that I can be more inclusive, empathetic, and supportive. And I’m bringing all of me to the table regardless of what industry I enter.

So, what stories do you tell yourself when ______? Fill in the blank as you’d like, but here’s what I would say right now: When I tell myself that I don’t deserve to dream big, I remember that I am here — and I have a Microsoft badge, a portfolio full of professional experiences, a head full of stories, and the support of my community to prove it.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check other ones in the series! You can read about identifying role models in your field of interest or about how my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman informs my work.