Gallegos Seeks to Connect, Empower Similar Students Through the Student-Run B[U]ILT

3/30/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

As an Illinois Computer science graduate student, Emmanuel Gallegos knows what it takes for students from underrepresented backgrounds to succeed in computing. And he relishes the opportunity to help others do the same through the student-run organization, B[U]ILT.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

For Illinois Computer Science graduate student Emmanuel Gallegos, the experience he undertook academically to find his own path in computing led to a few realizations about students in the field when they come from an underrepresented background – and what it takes to overcome those difficulties.

Headshot of Illinois CS graduate student Emmanuel Gallegos.
Emmanuel Gallegos

So, when he enrolled here as a master’s student, Gallegos wanted to find a way to help others in a similar space.

He found B[U]ILT – a non-profit student organization at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign devoted to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx in Tech – to be the perfect outlet. Now as the organization’s treasurer, Gallegos strives to turn some of his own understanding into information others can use.

“I think the power of organizations like B[U]ILT comes down to three major aspects,” said Gallegos, who is also a Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) Fellow with Illinois CS. “The first is that it provides a sense of community, so students can recognize the people around them. Our members share common backgrounds and can relate to each other easily. Second, as someone who has experienced impostor syndrome, I have realized how important it is to see other people exactly like you doing, and succeeding at, the things you want to do.

“Finally, B[U]ILT is dedicated to tackling some of the more tangible inequalities that exist in the tech and computing field. Through grant funding we’ve earned, we’re trying to figure out the best ways to provide resources back to our members to encourage their efforts in research and industry. The goal is to eliminate certain class gaps that tend to be associated with what we do.”

An event held within the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science earlier this month is a perfect example of how B[U]ILT can turn its overarching goals into a tangible impact.

This workshop, provided by Bloomberg, drew about 20 students who learned from a couple company representatives about preparation for technical interviews. Gallegos said that so many CS students are proficient and confident in their abilities but may not have encountered many opportunities to present that information skillfully.

“The Bloomberg group essentially trained students how to ace the company’s own technical interviews,” Gallegos said. “It’s an incredibly useful skill, which is why we decided upon the topic for this event. It connects so well to the tangible benefits we want to produce for our members.

“The connection participants had to the topic was clear. The engagement was so active we went about 20 minutes past the intended one-hour window. Plus, we gained membership from the event, including a new board member.”

In the big picture, B[U]ILT is recovering a base that dwindled during the COVID-19 pandemic – when it was harder for students to connect.

Events like this, Gallegos said, are probably the most important way to help prove the student group’s relevancy.

“When I first looked at the initial state of the club, and how things were, I wasn't sure that B[U]ILT could be saved,” he said. “But the department provided a lot of support for us. I’m a graduate student of Nancy Amato, the department head here at Illinois CS. She is also very involved in BPC, and she was emphatic that B[U]ILT could be revived. Due to the hard work of so many involved with our group over the past couple of years, it's really validating to see that people are interested in what we’re trying to do.”

"At Illinois CS, we aspire to develop and maintain a representative, inclusive, and supportive community that prepares and empowers our members to excel and effect positive impact in the broader community," Amato said.  “I’m incredibly proud of the work so many put in to make this more of a reality every day; a perfect example being the work of Emmanuel, Nathanael Assefa, CS PhD student and B[U]ILT President, and the many who have come before them. 

“This group - supported by our amazing staff, such as Carolyn Hughes, CS BPC Program Coordinator, and Cynthia Coleman, Director of External Relations - have stepped up and engaged, putting in the sweat equity needed to ensure important student organizations like B[U]ILT will be there to support the students that come after them."

Indeed, Gallegos feels confident in saying that the success of the student organization can continue well after his own presence ends on campus, as he prepares for graduation this spring.

Wherever his own life leads next, he doesn’t regret a moment of it spent here.

From his own growth as an Illinois CS masters student, to meeting his fiancée on campus, to building a community of friends and collaborators at B[U]ILT, Gallegos hopes others like him find the same positive experience.

To learn about what’s possible at B[U]ILT, Gallegos encouraged other students to visit the group’s website and interact with its Slack channel from there.

“At B[U]ILT, we are still sorting out what kind of services we want to provide. And that's something that we want feedback from the communities we're trying to reach out to tell us about,” Gallegos said. “Feedback and engagement are going to be critical to our continued growth.”

Group photos for the student-run organization, B[U]ILT

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This story was published March 30, 2023.