I only got to work with Muhammed for 4 months before he graduated from Hostos Lincoln Academy of Science (HLA) and Hostos Community College in 2017. He was in the first graduating class that I had the honor of working with. I remember being mystified by how in the world these HS students were able to actually get their AA and HS Diplomas at the same time. I knew the scope and sequence, and I had access to their transcripts – but I was perplexed because HLA students challenged the image I had in my mind of teenagers – and what teenagers could accomplish when supported and held accountable. This last May, Muhammed tagged HLA’s IG in a post celebrating his graduation – it was shared by CUNY, ECI, and of course HLA. Vincent Morano, the Assistant Principal at Hostos Lincoln put us in touch in early August. I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in being interviewed – and he graciously accepted.
Who are you?
I am Muhammad Asghar. I was born in Lahore, Pakistan and emigrated to the US in 2001. I have resided in the Bronx for about 18 years now, but I will be moving to Dallas, Texas in a couple weeks to start my software engineering career. I am currently 20, but on August 28 I will turn 21, which is a couple days into my move. In high school I was the nerdy kid, almost everyone knew me, but like everyone else I mostly hung around with my group of friends.
What years did you attend HLA? I attended from 2013 – 2017.
Why did you choose HLA for High School?
I was the salutatorian of my middle school so I was a fairly preppy kid and wasn’t concerned about what schools would accept me, rather did it offer tons of AP classes, and courses in astronomy, which was at the time my interest. As such I was mostly looking into the top high schools in the city (mostly in Manhattan, some in downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City). That being said, once I found out about the opportunity to do my Associates in high school at HLA, it would be incorrect to say it didn’t heavily influence my decision. I put it as my first choice and got in.
When you left Hostos where did you go and what did you study?
I went to CUNY Lehman College. I hold a Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science and Bachelor’s of Art in Mathematics.
How did the HOSTOS early college program prepare you?
Depends on your definition of preparedness. Hostos (Hostos Lincoln Academy) did not and as far as I know, still doesn’t offer a single Computer Science class which is a shame. I took calculus 1 at Hostos Community College but I don’t think that inherently made me a better prospective programmer. If anything, it helped ease my way into academia in college. I did not ever feel I was overwhelmed or that college was too difficult, which is often an issue for freshman (assuming you weren’t already a top performer in high school).
For those who don’t major in something technical that will require 3-4 years minimum in college, often they will need two years of liberal arts and the Associates checks that off. That being said, often those undergrad programs will then require they need to go to grad school to get any job in their profession.
Without a doubt, knocking out liberal arts as fast as you can is the way to go regardless of your career aspirations. The faster you get out, the less debt you take on. I went to class and back home for 3 years. CUNY is a commuter school, there is very little socializing in college itself, but many people I know make friends and hang out with them after classes. In some sense, liberal arts allows you to make friends more easily since you can talk about many different fields, not just your own since you learned the basics of theirs. It’s a great conversation starter. Likewise is true for professional development since you will always have to deal with Human Resources (HR), and they have no clue what you’re talking about when you get technical. Basic communication skills are a must.
Why Computer Science?
Immediately after Hostos, I attended City College mostly due to its cost, and because I wanted to get into the Grove School of Engineering to major in Computer Engineering (50% Computer Science / 50% Electrical Engineering). It is a program geared towards designing hardware although you learn the basics of software as well. I wanted to get into the mixture of creating software for hardware (mostly for robotics); in industry it’s called embedded systems. I was there for one semester and did not enjoy my time at all; classes were in huge auditoriums, professors were unapproachable, I had very few friends, going to financial aid and the bursar’s office was a pain. So I transferred to Lehman College because I still wanted to try something in the realm of computers and I had spoken with the advisor and was told I could very easily finish in 2 years given my Associates.
At City College majoring in Computer Engineering was a 4 year commitment since none of my Associates degree classes counted. Fortunately I did not have to transfer again because I loved my time at Lehman. Classes were under 30 students, professors were approachable and cared about students learning. I have now graduated but Lehman has and still is laying out opportunities to help Computer Science students land internships and get jobs through programs like Tech Talent Pipeline and CUNY 2X. At City College you had to hunt for opportunities to do research with professors, and there was a lot of competition for a few roles. Or you could try your luck and blindly apply online where there are thousands of students domestically and internationally looking for software engineering internships at big tech companies.
There are more clubs at City College where some people may or may not have referrals but that doesn’t translate to an increase in your professional development that much, if at all. There are more programs and networking opportunities at City College, but very little advertising done to find out about it.
At Lehman, I was part of a Slack channel where everyday people are sharing internship and job opportunities, as well as college events. My first semester there, I took a discrete math class, and the professor who taught it ended up being my advisor. He suggested I add another major in math because of my interest in data science. I currently hold a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Bachelor of Art in Mathematics. I completed both in 3 years, including the one semester at City College.
What does being a Computer Scientist mean to you?
To me it means having the ambition to learn everyday, and being open to new ideas constantly. It is very common for someone to encounter a problem for them [and then] to realize other people have it too. This could be a great business opportunity, and now all of a sudden you need to brush up on your elevator pitch so you can go to investors to get some funding. It is a very interdisciplinary field, despite being targeted as a very technical major. There is a lot of math under the hood, but often someone else has done the work for you and all you need to know is how to implement their work. The tech industry is much more than Computer Science, it is product managers, product designers, front end and back end developers, as well as data scientists. Majoring in Computer Science can lead you down any of those paths, but it is not the only way to get into these fields. There are a lot of people who are self taught as well as those who did an unrelated undergrad degree, and then did a masters in Computer Science. It is the ability to collaborate with all of these people and knowing what skills they have you can learn from as well as how I can help them.
I was aiming for big tech companies in California. The company that just so happened to provide me an offer has locations all throughout the country. My recruiter, found my resume on a career fair database. She was recruiting for a data scientist in their Dallas location, although she herself was based in the company’s main headquarters in Florida. She saw my resume and knew I was in NYC, and often in the tech industry that doesn’t matter. They will fly you out wherever the job is located, put you in a hotel and interview you for a day or two to see if you’re a fit once they do an initial phone screening interview with HR. After that, it is purely technical to see if you really have the skills that you say you do. COVID-19 disrupted this process so instead I had multiple video calls that substituted the in-person process. I had other interviews with big name companies all throughout the country but they went through a hiring freeze and stopped interviewing in mid April. Given my location and the expenses needed to move to Dallas, they provided a relocation and sign-on bonus accordingly. My salary was based on the average starting salary in Dallas for new grad positions + 5%. Given the cost of living there vs in NYC, and accounting for taxes (Texas has no state tax), I make more than my friends here who are making 6 figures. That means, I take home more of my income, spend less for mandatory bills, and have more in savings than those in NYC. With all the hiring freezes, I thought it wasn’t worth it to continue interviewing elsewhere – so I accepted. I still get emails from companies wanting to interview, from applications I sent out mid Covid.
What is your proudest moment in High School?
Hostos Lincoln Academy does not offer any astronomy classes, but I did take a few classes at the American Museum of Natural History where I was taught by world-renowned scientists.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
This summer I was a Civic Digital Fellow which is a program that brings tech talent to the government. I was able to intern at the US Census Bureau where I spearheaded a cutting edge project that will be used in the 2030 decennial Census. I am really fortunate to be a part of the cohort, which unfortunately was remote this summer. I had the pleasure of attending many networking events with other students and leaders in civic tech to talk about problems this country and the world is facing, and how we can leverage technology to help. It has opened my mind into what top students at top universities do, and being able to realize you don’t have to major in pre-law or political science to make change in this country. It has completely changed what I see in the future for myself in the next decadStudents came from various schools and backgrounds, not just in computer science, but product design, data science, and product management for a common purpose, to create technology that impacts everyone. We held virtual town hall meetings when the Black Lives Matter protests were going on, sharing resources and donating to good causes, meeting prominent figures too. We had book clubs where we discussed numerous subjects from being a person of color in tech to the power of social media. Some students started their own non-profit organizations. It was amazing to see what we could do when people brought together their skillset, and I am grateful to now be an alumni. Being a fellow will forever change the way people see me on my resume just based on the success stories of people who went through it.
What are you most looking forward to?
Computer Science is a very weird industry because you have people with no formal education (self taught) who have worked in industry after high school, others with bachelors and masters, and some with PhDs. For data science jobs which is where I work, typically it is expected to have a masters / PhD in computer science, math, physics, economics, or any other quantitative field where you have experience working with big data. I do not have a masters but I did spend the extra year to strengthen my math skills with my math major. With this coupled with my industry experience, my plan is to eventually pursue a PhD after a couple years.
Anything else you want to share?
In the entirety of my internship and job hunting interviews, I do not talk about my Associates. The tech industry does not care. It is a very arrogant industry and is fixated on brand names and prestige. It is something you have to live with but try to defy when possible. I remember one conversation with a guy who goes to Stanford and I told him about my background and he asked if I went to Bronx Science because I mentioned I live in the Bronx. Bronx Science for sure will have students who attended Stanford, as well as other big name schools, consistently every year. They are a feeder. The name lingers around. People in top schools will only know other top schools and the schools where they grew up. They’ve read the same rankings you did, they know what schools are prestigious.
I am not saying this to disappoint you, but the reality is most alumni of Hostos will remain in NYC, for the majority of their lives, and even then we will be overshadowed by bigger schools. That is not a bad thing, it keeps us exclusive, but it should make you think about what legacy you want to carry.
I advocate for CUNY when I am accepted into a program so others get a chance. Usually in my earlier conversations when I didn’t have much on my resume, I put my high school and Hostos Community College. If the recruiter notices the dates it will strike a conversation where you can then talk about being dual enrolled, but the farthest that conversation gets is “oh cool” and then they’ll move on to the technical skills you have.
Simply put, as I had more experience and needed space, those two lines were the first thing I removed. You have to note in the tech industry people care about what school you went to and what companies you worked at only if they are prestigious; if not that, you talk about your technical skills to death.
If you really want to talk about it, it has to come naturally in conversation – otherwise you sound arrogant. You need to play your cards right. There are certain times where it is appropriate to talk about it, such as diversity and inclusion, but to me that’s a very tacky use of my degree and just labels me as a person of color who grew up low income. It’s not something I personally want to use to my advantage.
Now if you’re a person of color and are looking for a job where you would be boosting or aiding diversity and inclusion in some form then yes absolutely talk about your struggle and doing your Associates in high school.
What is your advice to Hostos Lincoln Academy Students?
My advice is the same for all students (seniors, juniors, middle school) since looking back there wasn’t that much of a difference between being in high school versus middle school. In these years you should have fun but still think about what you’re going to do in the future. In middle school you know less about what you want to do in life, and in high school (hopefully) by senior year you know at least which path you think you want to be in, whether academic or not. For instance some are set on medical, some in engineering, some in trade school. Some will want to be realtors or learn to invest. It doesn’t matter what specifically since ultimately it’s your life. If you know, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world. Many people will switch their majors, I did. You can think of it as a financial loss but really it’s not, it’s better to try now and hate it than do this as a profession for 20 years. The world is interdisciplinary, if you play games, absolutely people you work with will want to know what you play. People hire people, regardless of how much you know or don’t. If you can have genuine conversations combining your interests outside of work and your professional skill set, you will get along and you will come to enjoy your job.
People do not quit their jobs, people quit their bosses.
Don’t take on debt you can’t afford. If you’re going into a profession that requires a masters where ultimately you would take out 100k in loans, and you make 40k afterwards, it is not worth it. The math doesn’t work. You cannot expect loan forgiveness as a savior. Same goes for buying a car, just because you can pay the monthly fee doesn’t mean you can afford it. There is never a good deal when you buy a new car. If they dropped the sticker price, they increased in terms of months you have to pay or in interest. If possible pay for things upfront in cash, avoid monthly payments. The moment your income stops coming in, you still have to figure out how to pay these monthly bills. This is especially true in the Covid world. Learn financial literacy. Take this from someone who has zero debt and can afford to move and travel anywhere in the world without anything holding me back, my friends cannot go on vacations with me because they need to pay their loans.
Apply to other state schools. There are a lot of state schools in the country that are very prestigious and have endowments larger than some private universities; if you really want to go there – apply. There is a stereotype they will not give generous financial aid, but the ones that are top 20 definitely will.
No matter how much or little you’ve planned for in the future, never forget where you came from, what your hobbies were, and what goals you had in mind. Life gets boring sometimes, and you need to keep yourself occupied until the next big thing comes. Always have a drive for change because it will happen whether you’re comfortable with it or not, or whether you’re forcing it or not. You will find your place in life because you have a skill someone out there wants, even if you haven’t developed it yet. Whether you’re playing around with video editing for YouTube or you like building stuff, or journaling, someone out there will sympathize with your interests. You may not go to the same college as your best friends in high school and you’ll realize when you talk to them, you no longer have anything in common. That is not true, that is from a time where you didn’t know what you wanted to do in life and now that you do – you feel comfortable, it feels as if you were suppressing this thing because they thought it was uncool or wouldn’t work out. Change happens and it’s okay to reminisce on where you are now and what you would have done differently.