Five Weeks, Six New Connections

Three months ago, for the first time in nearly half a year, I conducted a perusal of my junk mail inbox. Nothing new popped out, nothing caught the eye. Until I stumbled upon an email addressed to me. ‘Hey,’ I thought. The sender’s name was legitimate, and the accuracy of my name was uncanny. It didn’t seem like any old scammer. Tapping open the message, I scanned through a quick greeting from a random woman (I later discovered it was my sister’s college counselor) and the introduction to the main topic — a Stanford AI camp. It was managed by alumni of Stanford, hence the name, and marketed itself as an Artificial Intelligence “camp for beginners.”

Reflecting upon the moment where I chose to apply, I should’ve seen that it was too good to be true. A five week camp that promised to turn you from coding novice to practically an expert on AI models? To a sane person, it would seem sketchy. But me from two months ago, well she was much more naïve. Quickly, excitedly, and confidently, I filled out the application. I made sure to proverbially dot my i’s and cross my t’s, as this application could not afford any mistakes. Such a Stanford-alumni run camp must have thousands of STEM-oriented students chomping at the bit to attend, right? At around 1:00 AM PST, fatigued but determined, I submitted the application.

Fast forward to a month later. I had all but forgotten about the camp, though the start date hurtled closer. Then, yet again, I checked my junk email inbox (it had become an unlikely quarantine habit of mine). And once again, the Stanford AI camp reminder sat atop the list of emails, smug and gloating. “You thought you could forget about me?” the unread blue dot taunted. Some choice words were exchanged between that email and me. Perhaps even an eyebrow or two was raised. However, I try not to break promises in general, even ones made by a sleep-deprived, opportunity-drunk version of me from a month ago. And so, I registered for the weekly Zoom calls. Two hours each day, five weekends in a row. What could go wrong?

Spoiler alert: things definitely did not go as expected. Zoom has this lovely feature where you can view all of the participants and their names. And it was this feature that chased all of my remaining resolve away on the first day. As my fellow campers filed into the first call, I chuckled, quite uncomfortably. I was perhaps one of three girls in the entire class, a class composed of primarily Asian-American, Indian and Caucasian boys. On a scale of one to ten, the diversity level was perhaps a three. Everyone looked different from me, and I had no idea who anyone was. Although, the instructors assured me that I would by the end of the camp. We were to be assigned in project groups after three weeks of learning about Python and its many libraries, embarking upon a two-week coding mission that concluded with a ten minute presentation. But first, we had to learn the basics.

Remember how I told you that I filled out the application confidently? Well… the half year of Python coding I did in Geometry was definitely inadequate for me to be performing in the top cohort, or group. (When asked about my coding experience, I bubbled in a four out of five). And in the top cohort was exactly where I was placed.

The first two weeks/four sessions, I struggled. Heck, I struggled throughout the entire thing. We jumped from learning print statements to Logistical Regression, which is a type of binary classification model, in three sessions flat. I got the sense that we were already supposed to know most of this, and that learning AI was the cherry on top. My coding skills were nowhere near up to par, though, so I heavily relied on other students the first two weeks. As I completed more notebooks, though, which was the camp’s version of coding homework, I grew more confident. Just barely enough to consider myself “not half bad” at coding.

And then, at the beginning of session 7/10, we were assigned project groups. Not only did I have no idea what was going on for the first couple days of the project, a feeling I was kind of, and still am, unused to, but I also needed to learn everyone’s names and set up meetings with them. And here’s the plot twist: this camp was a global camp.

Unknowingly, I had signed up to work with kids with a 12.5 hour time difference. About half of the group was from Silicon Valley or India — Mumbai, Delhi, Curacao, Santa Clara, Stanford, Palo Alto — and the rest were from Istanbul, Florida, Seattle, and more. I was assigned to an Emotion Recognition group — i.e we had to train a model to recognize different emotions of people’s faces. I won’t get into the nitty gritty, but I will say that we spent hours coding and burned through several different models before settling on a Convolutional Neural Network, or CNN. We met to discuss our project’s notebooks and construct the final presentation. We set up a WhatsApp group chat and filed away the contact information of everyone in our group. I’m not proud to say that, even as we began wrapping up the coding aspect of what was going on, I still didn’t fully understand the material. Only as we began transferring the information to slides did I actually comprehend what I had done, as I was the group member tasked with running the model on individual images, rather than a set of images. The outputs/classifications were vital to the presentation, so I spent a full 45 minutes converting the outputs to prospective labels. The moment where the code finally worked was perhaps the emotional pinnacle of the project for me. Strange, I know.

We ended up with 25 slides, one finished project, a WhatsApp group chat, and a lot of memories. Like the time where we added our instructor’s names to the acknowledgements slide, and we spelled nearly all of them wrong. Or when we secretly added the instructors’ headshots to an activity, and watched their horrified faces as they recognized themselves in our presentation. Or the time where we swapped out the final data for stick figures with labeled emotions, then revealed the actual model predictions after acting proud of our poorly drawn smiley faces. I stayed up really late some nights and woke up really early other times to accommodate for the other team members’ schedules, as they were all from India (though different parts). I learned about the final bar exams in India and how their schooling system is so different from ours by just talking to my team members. My team members were all in different grades: me in 9th, Akshat in 12th, Kushagra in 10th, and Ilina in 11th. We discussed college, our plans for the future. Though college seems far to me, it was preoccupying almost all of Akshat’s time. We talked about applying to Indian vs. American colleges, the benefits of extracurriculars, and tips for the SAT. Akshat and I held in our laughter as Kushagra butchered a slide that I had accidentally switched up the text for. We stressed the night before about our big presentation, and brainstormed ways that we could shorten it by nearly half.

Looking back on this camp, I have mixed feelings. Like eating chips or foods with MSG, it got much better as I experienced more of it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I willingly go through the first two weeks again, especially as school was wrapping up with major projects? Perhaps, though I’m currently leaning towards a tentative “I suppose.” My point is I loved this camp. I met new people across the world, found two people I knew from Seattle (the odds of that!) and learned an incredible amount of information. I came in with nearly no coding knowledge, and ended five weeks later with six new connections.

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