Iris Gau Surges out of her Comfort Zone

Iris GauBorn and raised in Santa Barbara, CA, CS sophomore Iris Gau never expected to end up in Texas, much less spend her first college summer programming for a non-profit in Poland.

“I ended up coming to Rice to get out of my comfort zone,” she said, “and not just in terms of university, but also weather and location.” While looking at colleges, she heard a lot about professor/student ratio and class size. She said, “I didn’t understand what that meant until I came to visit Rice. Walking around, I saw my host and other students talking to upperclassmen, who knew other classmates. That community is absolutely real. Everything I had heard about small schools was true here.”

She was also struck by Rice’s equilibrium. “Academically and socially, everyone seemed to be pretty balanced as to how they spent their time. Rice students also seem to defy stereo-types. No matter what your interests are you are very likely to find someone with similar interests here.”

Gau’s interests also include riding a long board, drawing, painting, and playing piano and guitar, and she found many classmates shared her hobbies. She said, “Almost everyone is so musically talented or artistic, which is really bizarre. Tons of my engineering friends turned out to be incredible people who can finish a problem set in 30 minutes and then go paint you an amazing picture. And I know it sounds trite, but if you ask or look hard enough, everyone has an amazing story. That just radiates out from everyone here.”

Her own amazing story started with a low profile job announcement on the Center for Career Development’s website in her freshman year. Living abroad appealed to her, but she also wanted to work during the summer. “I knew summer opportunities to work abroad were very difficult to find, so I was actively searching for one when I discovered this perfect opportunity through the CCD.”

She spent the summer working in Poland as an intern with Katalyst Education, a non-profit organization offering free online educational support tools to K-12 students there. The organization planned to extend similar resources to university students, and Gau found herself focused on one of Katalyt’s main projects, the internationalization of OpenStax, an open-source textbook platform initiative started and based at Rice.

What surprised her most was how quickly her Katalyst colleagues relied on her contributions. She said, “When I went in, it was very clear they were not going to be easy on me – no busywork or filing. And I preferred that to anything else. But after a couple of weeks, I was struck by how much trust my co-workers and boss put in me, how much responsibility I had.”

After she met the other interns, Gau said, “We were thrown into the water. Even if we didn’t know a particular programming language, they provided basics on how we could proceed and gave us the freedom to then figure it out.” She and another intern ended up being responsible for driving their own project in a very fluid and dynamic, collaborative relationship.

Perhaps more importantly, Gau received both technical and business management experience. “When I wasn’t working directly with the code base and platforms, I was helping with the management of their internal procedures and processes documentation. I was both surprised and pleased with the amount of responsibility and importance my role played in the organization this summer; they showed a great deal of appreciation for my accomplishments,” she said.

Back at Rice, Gau is diving into her second year of CS courses and looking for her next internship. “There is no perfect internship,” she said. “But even I get caught up in the hype, spend a lot of energy on that. It’s easy to think you need to focus on an internship with one of the top 10 companies.” Her own summer experience helped her realize that there is much more to an internship experience than the company name on the offer. She said simply, “The ranking of the company you intern at is not indicative of your current or future success.” Confident of her abilities and her future, she pulls out her long board and skates across campus to class.

Read more about Gau’s internship in the CS website.