After graduation, Ahyesha Russell is headed for a well-paid job with Capgemini in Seattle as a technical consultant—something she hadn't thought was possible in her wildest dreams.
“I was shocked when they offered me a job,” she said. “I was floored. I couldn’t believe I was worth that much."
The 39-year-old Modesto resident and mother of three said it has been a long road to get her to this point, in part because a decade ago, she was in and out of jail for substance abuse offenses.
First, she attended Modesto Junior College for three years and then she spent four years at UC Santa Cruz's Baskin School of Engineering before earning her degree. She struggled with learning disabilities and had to repeat classes and not take too many units at a time. While some other students loaded up with 19 units a quarter, she knew 10 units was tops for her.
She had to leave her children (ages 19, 15, and 13) with her mother in Modesto so that she could concentrate on her studies full time at UC Santa Cruz.
“At one point, I was leaving them to go to jail,” she said, when asked how she did it. “That wasn’t going to change unless I did something major. This time, it was to get an education.”
She credits UC Santa Cruz’s many support organizations for helping her make it through and encouraging her when she hit challenges. Among those were the Smith Society (for former foster youth and others who lack traditional family support), and the MESA Engineering Program, also known as the Multicultural Engineering Program (to promote diversity in STEM).
Initially, she thought she was going to go into robotics but she changed her mind because she didn’t like physics, which is a big part of the field. She switched to computer science but didn’t really like coding either. Then she realized she could do other things in tech such as help angel investors pick their next project or do an economic feasibility study on startups. As a technical consultant at Capgemini, a consulting, technology, professional, and outsourcing services firm, she will serve the company’s clients (which include Boeing and T-Mobile) in making sure their software runs correctly.
“Nobody has a story like me to walk out of the jailhouse and metaphorically walk across the stage at UC Santa Cruz and then make top salary on your first job,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing and unheard of.”