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From student to software engineer

Pooja Vemu

On May 9, Pooja Vemu will receive her computer science degree from UIC. Soon thereafter, she’ll join the Chicago office of legal and compliance technology company Relativity as a software engineer.

Vemu was an intern for the company last summer, working on its core user interface vertical integration team. She executed all of the changes that the design team made to the front end of a website, and at the end of the project, she presented her work to company executives. She accepted a full-time offer in April, and will focus on front-end design and human-centered computing.

Vemu didn’t envision a career as a computer scientist—at least not at first. “I enjoy graphic design and anything artsy and creative,” she said. Those didn’t seem like traits that would connect naturally with code.

At Waubonsie Valley High School in suburban Aurora, Vemu experimented with an engineering class and found herself one of the only girls in it. Encouraged by a supportive teacher who saw her potential, Vemu attended a Society of Women Engineers Shadow Day at UIC.

Shadow Day helped Vemu to recognize that engineering was not for her. But thanks to the relationship she developed with Elsa Soto, the associate director for Women in Engineering Programs, Vemu chose UIC.

“I chose UIC for the opportunities for technology within the city, but as well because of the connections I had there already,” Vemu said.

Where engineering wasn’t a fit, computer science was. Vemu served as a student mentor on Saturdays with UIC’s Girls Who Code club, teaching programming skills and languages to high school students. She was a teaching assistant for two courses: CS 100 Discovering Computer Science and CS 377 Communications and Ethical Issues in Computing. She served on the boards of Women in Computer Science and the Society of Women Engineers. She was a lead teaching assistant for UIC’s Break Through Tech Winter Guild session, a weeklong program that teaches design thinking and problem-solving to women and nonbinary students who are brand new to tech. She also participated in the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2019. She graduates cum laude.

“A lot of time in tech you have imposter syndrome—especially when you encounter new material,” Vemu said. “But though Grace Hopper I realized I was on the right path, and I made great connections.”

Vemu, who lived on campus for her first three years at UIC, moved back home with her parents for her senior year. She’s always been passionate about photography, but this past year she’s indulged her love of baking and cooking.

Vemu plans to stay involved with Girls Who Code and hopes to become an instructor with the program, a path taken by many program alumnae.

“It’s been such a big part of what I’ve been doing,” she said. “In high school I was looking for a supportive environment, and I’ve been able to find that here. I want to provide that to other people, for other women in tech.”

“It’s incredible how effective a strong community can be for an individual,” she added.