We couldn’t be more excited to introduce you to Isabel Abonitalla — a computer science and biology student, programmer, entrepreneur, and one of the leaders of Skillacademy’s CUNY Tech chapter. CUNY Tech is the Skillacademy Community chapter made up of the schools in the City University of New York school system, led by Isabel and a team of 4 other students.
In addition to helping to lead the CUNY Tech chapter, Isabel is active in various tech communities, and also the co-founder and Executive Director of HackGuild, a nonprofit that aims to increase access to tech education. We interviewed Isabel to learn more about her nonprofit, the CUNY Tech chapter — and the importance of community in general!
Check out the interview below and, if you’re inspired, head over to find a Skillacademy Chapter in your area — or start your own!
Tell us about yourself!
I’m a junior studying computer science and biology at CUNY Hunter College. Outside of academics, I am very active in my community. I also run a nonprofit that aims to increase access to tech education. I am also a mentor to high school students, for technical projects, college applications, and general professional development. I am also a gamer and an anime fan. My favorite game is Breath of the Wild, and my favorite anime is Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood!
Tell us about HackGuild!
I founded HackGuild, a nonprofit that aims to increase access to tech education. We plan on doing that by hosting hackathons, workshops, speaker series, and other events as well as providing 1:1 mentorship to high school students, especially those from underrepresented minorities and low-income communities.
We are currently a team of 20 high school and college students, and even though we’re fairly new (we officially started in May!) we’re all doing our best because we believe in our cause and enjoy working with our team.
We’re actually in the middle of a fundraiser to gain nonprofit status and tax exemption, as well as provide financial aid to our event organizers. You can learn more here.
What interested you about computer science?
My career interests actually started in biomedical research, but my second research internship involved data science so this introduced me to the world of technology. I was fascinated with the applications of tech in other industries and how much it was capable of doing. I was able to create graphs and build machine learning models within a few lines of code and that was exhilarating! Since then, I have been exploring the different tracks I could take within technology, particularly data science, front-end development, and product management.
What’s your favorite thing about coding?
I enjoy creating projects that solve real-world problems, and I have done that through my 21 hackathon experiences. I like knowing that what I create can make an actual difference. Coding itself is very rewarding, especially getting it to compile or render correctly after working at it for so long. It is such a satisfying feeling! I also love the fact that I can get results so quickly; I write the code and it can reflect changes almost instantaneously (in the case of React’s hot reloading).
What has your experience been with tech communities?
I am both a leader and a member of various communities. I am the founder and president of Hunter College’s Google Developer Student Club, the vice president of the Open Source Club, and the lead of the CUNY-wide Skillacademy chapter. I also created a discord server of over a thousand students geared towards professional development. Even my nonprofit has a discord server for its students. I am also a member of the Purple Hydrangea Project, a nonprofit and community that aims to increase awareness of mental health in youths, Rewriting the Code, #BUILTBYGIRLS, NCWIT, Becoming Businesswomen, The Loop, as well as my school’s ACM, WiCS, and E-sports and Game Design clubs.
Communities are so important because they provide a safe space for people to connect with like-minded individuals, get support and guidance, and bond over shared interests. My communities have been so helpful to me in terms of my professional growth, but also just to have people to talk to despite being in isolation.
What has the CUNY Tech chapter been up to?
So far, we’ve been having weekly study hours for students to bring their projects, or Leetcode problems, or even just their homework, and we can work through them together in what counts as a social setting in this new normal.
We also had a blast during MLH’s Local Hack Day. We participated as one Guild and got really close to Top 10, going toe to toe against significantly larger and more technical schools. It brought out our competitive spirit, while still giving us a chance to learn a lot from the workshops offered at Local Hack Day: Learn. My chapter and I learned a lot from that week, and we grew closer as a chapter because of the activities that we participated in.
People coming into the chapter can look forward to a vibrant community, where we welcome all skill levels and tech interests. While our main focus is our collegiate audience, we welcome anyone who wants to join our community, regardless of educational background. You can expect that we are more than just our events, but we are a community that prioritizes your learning experience while socializing or sharing resources and memes.