Desiderio Ascencio

Oakes ’21, cognitive science (artificial intelligence and human computer interaction concentration) and computer science (minor)

Desiderio Ascencio (Oakes ’21, cognitive science [artificial intelligence and human comput
Desiderio Ascencio (Oakes ’21, cognitive science [artificial intelligence and human computer interaction concentration] and computer science [minor])

During the last year of the pandemic, Desi Ascencio and his twin brother, Daniel, have shared a bedroom-turned-office to study and take virtual classes at their parents’ home in Southern California. This month, they’ll graduate within two days of each other—Desi with a degree in cognitive science at UC Santa Cruz, and Daniel with an electrical engineering degree from UC Irvine. 

Ascencio has learned to make adjustments in his life. His parents, immigrants from El Salvador who were refugees from its civil war in the 1980s, had high expectations for him to go to college, as his older brother and sister had done. But when he was a sophomore in high school, he failed a math class, and his grade-point average plummeted.  

“That was the first experience in which I struggled with something that only I could fix,” Ascencio said. “I had to learn to advocate for myself, correct my time-management skills and study habits, and prioritize what I wanted to accomplish.”

He was able to improve his GPA and get accepted at UC Santa Cruz, declaring bioengineering as his major. But halfway through his undergraduate years, he encountered another downfall, and his grades started to slip. With the help of mentors, he was able to work at a research lab where he learned coding, and he realized his passions for neuroscience and computer science. Then he was accepted as a summer research assistant for the STEM Diversity Programs.

“Both of these environments were pivotal to my finding the confidence to explore my interests as a student and as a scientist,” Ascencio said. “I changed my major and became more interested in my classes and everything around me.”

He’d been active in The Social Club, a DJ collective on campus that celebrated people of color through dance and self-expression. That helped him gain experience with event planning and programming, which led to his role as logistics lead for GraceHacks, a group started by students, like Saniya Doshi (College Nine '22, computer science), to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I wanted to be in an environment where I could motivate and help other people in underrepresented groups to reach their potential,” Ascencio said. “That’s what the research lab and STEM Diversity were doing for me.”

And now? After his virtual graduation, he’ll enter the Computational and Neurosystems Ph.D. program at California Institute of Technology. Always learning.