Newswise — Every Chinese New Year, Iris Huang would save the money she received in the traditional red envelopes limned in gold. She remembers being just 6 years old and putting the cash in a cookie jar for safekeeping.
The first-grader had told her class she hoped to be the first in her family to go to college. A boy then snarled at her, "You know that costs like $50,000, right?" That unkind comment was what first spurred her to start saving.
As she grew up, Huang knew she had the grades and the motivation to earn a degree, but she also realized the cookie-jar savings clearly weren't going to suffice.
"I had always wanted to go to college, for as long as I could remember," Huang explains. "I studied really hard and did my best in school, but I didn't know if this dream would ever be achievable because I came from a very low-income household."
It wasn't until she met with a high school counselor that she learned about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. "I remember feeling so relieved … Going to college became a possibility because of financial aid," Huang says.
When it came time to choose a university, Huang knew only that the school would have to be affordable and give her a hands-on learning environment.
She turned to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
The White-Hot Field of Big Data
Thanks to a number of Advanced Placement high school courses under her belt when she arrived at Cal Poly in 2014, Huang was able to graduate with a bachelor's degree in business and a concentration in information systems in just three years.
"Before [Cal Poly], I never thought I would even go near the tech field. I didn't even know business analytics existed," Huang notes. "Cal Poly has its 'Learn by Doing' philosophy, which really resonated with me. A lot of our students are conducting and leading their own projects."
In the simplest terms, big data analytics involves gathering, organizing, analyzing, and communicating copious amounts of information.
"You can analyze basically anything using big data analysis tools," says Huang. "My favorite part is visualizing findings and uncovering the story hidden in the data. It's much easier to show a graph to someone who is unfamiliar with a topic versus showing them a bunch of numbers."
Data analytics — a field the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will grow 27 percent by 2026 — is so new and quickly evolving that it will almost certainly give Huang her pick of jobs.
"We are learning how to organize data, find insights from the data, and communicate this to executives and key decision makers," says the 21-year-old.
"You can do pretty much whatever you want with [the degree]. Big data is such a powerful tool."
Connecting with Industry
If a degree is only as good as its ability to transform your life and your career, there's already evidence that Huang is on her way to doing meaningful work.
"Getting into the graduate program at San Luis Obispo got me so much more exposure to big data and allowed me to get my foot in the door," says the first Cal Poly Scholar, a need-based scholarship program, to graduate from Orfalea.
"At the CSU, we as students have so many industry connections available to us," continues Huang, adding that contacts she's made have led to internships at Kaiser Permanente and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. At Kaiser, she learned how to diagnose patients using big data by running patients' lab results through an algorithm written by doctors; the formula could determine who was at risk for certain diseases.
"Sometimes doctors would miss a diagnosis. These projects identified people who would have otherwise been unaware of their illness and helped them get proper treatment," she explains.
"My parents heavily emphasized education growing up," says Huang, who also speaks Cantonese and Mandarin and immigrated from China with her parents at the age of 3. "They truly believe education has transformative powers … to make the positive changes in the world you want, allowing you to break out of your socioeconomic situation."
That message is not unlike the one that has permeated Huang's time at the CSU: "At Cal Poly, they teach us to not just focus on the technical aspects, but also be sure to focus on your personal values and what you want to get out of your career."