Where Are They Now - Lea Coligado
Posted on 11/06/2020

The GCISD “Where Are They Now” series features graduates of GCISD schools who have gone on to make a positive impact in their communities and/or have interesting, inspiring stories that deserve to be shared. This can include alumni with unique professions, noteworthy accomplishments, incredible obstacles to overcome, etc. We are always looking for alumni to feature, so if you want to nominate a GCISD graduate, fill out the nomination form here.

Where Are They Now - Lea Coligado

“The best-taught and most attentive courses in my life have come from GCISD teachers,” says Lea Coligado, a 2012 graduate of Grapevine High School and 2016 graduate of Stanford University. Coligado majored in Computer Science at Stanford and is currently a software engineer on Google Maps, serving as Team Lead of Accessibility.

While at Stanford, she founded Women of Silicon Valley, a Humans of New York spin-off with over 70,000 cross-platform followers that celebrates underrepresented people in tech. In fact, she still leads it as a Google 20-percent project to this day. For her work on Women of Silicon Valley, Coligado was named to BBC's 100 Women of 2017 and has shared her perspective in a number of public speaking engagements.

GCISD’s Where Are They Now asked Lea Coligado about her time in GCISD, her advice for current students, and much more...

In high school, did you know what kind of career you wanted or what you wanted to study? Did your mind change anywhere along the way or did you stick to those plans?

When I started Stanford, I declared an intent to major in Biology because I wanted to be a doctor like my dad. Plus, Biology was my favorite subject of all time thanks to my teacher Ms. Crook. Being smack-dab in the middle of Silicon Valley, however, I found it impossible not to get swept into the tech hype and I enrolled in a Computer Science course my freshman year, expecting it to go nowhere. The course was taught by Mehran Sahami, a former Senior Research Scientist at Google who was responsible for developing email spam filtering (among many other patents), and it was the first time I'd seen an industry professional present a subject as immediately vocational and impactful. 

I fell in love. I learned coding was not nearly as frigid or inhuman as pop culture would portray it, but rather much like creative writing, which requires precision and nuance. Plus, on top of actually loving to code, my parents are extremely hard-working eldest siblings from immigrant families (my mom's a Vietnamese refugee and my dad's parents immigrated from the Philippines), so it didn't make any sense to spend all their hard earned money on Stanford tuition just to land myself in medical school loans (even if they were okay with it). I needed to make the most of my four years in California. My sophomore year I switched to Computer Science, and the rest is history.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your high school self? 

Although it may have just manifested itself as "perfectionism" in high school, I suffered from severe OCD since I was a young girl. This is a coarse analogy, but unlike its overused definition as "perfectionist," OCD is like having a small, nagging voice in your head telling you to perform certain rituals throughout the day or else something bad will happen. Like other anxiety disorders, it's a way of feeling control in an uncontrollable world, but the irony is that it's exhausting. In elementary school, it looked like washing my hands 27 times a day. In high school, it looked like taking triple the time it took my classmates to do the reading because I couldn't stop obsessively reading the same paragraph over and over. 

So, I wish I could tell my high school self that not feeling okay is okay. Going to therapy is okay. You're going to do a lot of it when you're older, and that doesn't make you flawed or broken but rather the opposite - self-esteeming and really, really lucky. Emotional resilience is the goal, not happiness or perfection.

What advice would you give to a student preparing for college or the working world?

Practice naming how you feel. Being able to name how certain places and people make you feel will keep you attuned with your body, and ultimately guide you to people and places who bring out your best (and away from those who don't). I regret all the times I repressed my own feelings to stay in work situations and relationships that didn't serve me.

What was your favorite high school memory and why?

Getting into Stanford. My freshman year, I marched into my counselor's office and told him I wanted to apply to Stanford. He was kind, but also warned me several times that the acceptance rate was notoriously low and that I didn't have any legacy, which made my chances even lower. He left me with, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." From that point on, I did everything in my power to get in. I studied religiously, re-wrote my college essays over and over, and with the support of some cherished teachers, submitted an application that represented my best and final go at convincing Stanford I deserved to be there, even if I didn't believe it myself. 

For months afterward I anticipated my rejection letter. I replayed over and over in my head what reading "We regret to inform you..." would feel like so that when I finally got rejected, it wouldn't hurt as much. Then on a cold day in December, I came home from walking the dog to find an email from Stanford with "Congratulations" in the subject line. I couldn't believe it. I had gotten in. All I can remember is dropping to the floor and crying tears of joy and my dog having no idea what was going on. Being able to tell my teachers the next day that I had gotten in was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. It would not have been possible without them.

Who was your favorite high school teacher and why?

I will always have soft spots in my heart for Ms. Crook and Mrs. Rose. 

Ms. Crook was my Biology teacher, and how she was able to shepherd so many students towards a love and learning of something as ridiculously expansive as "Biology" is beyond me. In hindsight, she was the first strong woman in STEM I got to look up to, and a huge reason I went into STEM as an adult. Also, although I was terribly awkward and soft-spoken in high school, Ms. Crook heard and understood me. She encouraged me adamantly to apply to summer research, then universities in California, writing my letters of recommendation every time.

Mrs. Rose was my English and Leadership teacher, and she was the first teacher who recognized and developed my talent for writing, encouraging me to participate in UIL competitions for the first time. Those same writing skills that she developed are what got me into Stanford and today, what I use to work across teams at Google. Mrs. Rose also wrote me a letter of recommendation that makes me tear up!

What role did GCISD play in your success in the real world?

The best-taught and most attentive courses in my life have come from GCISD teachers, not university courses that cost life savings. On that note, I wish public school teachers got paid like college professors.

I also feel really thankful that when I was at GHS, Computer Science courses were offered. I don't think it was offered in most public schools at the time, and having that exposure prior to college gave me a huge leg up, and I wasn't as scared of competing against Silicon Valley coders!