Tiffany-Ellen Vo

College Nine, computer engineering

Tiffany-Ellen Vo / Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta
Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta
As a young girl interested in engineering, Tiffany-Ellen Vo quickly realized she was going to stand out.

She remembers getting some looks when she walked into a fourth-grade robotics class because she was the only girl. But that only motivated her to work harder, and she ended up winning the robotics competition.

“I wanted to show all those boys that you can do the exact same thing, but in a dress,” she said.

Vo, 22, is graduating this spring from UC Santa Cruz with a computer engineering degree, and has already secured a job as a software engineer at Cisco.

Vo grew up in Pittsburg in the East Bay to Vietnamese parents. They were refugees who came to the U.S. with the hope that their children would have a better life.

“Education was the most important thing in our family,” Vo said. “It was the only opportunity my siblings and I could use to raise ourselves,” she said.

She attended UC Santa Cruz on a full scholarship but had trouble initially with some of her courses. After the deaths of two family members, she failed some classes at UC Santa Cruz and was initially denied a spot in her major. She appealed, but that was denied too. But with the support of the Multicultural Engineering Program (MEP), which promotes the retention and graduation of diverse students, she was eventually allowed back in the major.

“MEP has helped me stay in engineering,” she said, saying the program offers mentoring, tutoring, workshops in résumé writing, and job searches for first-generation low-income students. “It offers basically everything you need to set you up for the industry.”

Vo diligently took advantage of every opportunity she was offered, including participating in MEP Baskin Engineering Excellence Scholars, a two-week summer intensive for incoming freshmen, and teaching elementary and junior high school girls in a summer Girls in Engineering program. She also interned with Michigan State University to help with the software development of Avida-ED, a software platform that simulates biology lab experiments.

In addition, Vo was first author for research she did with UC Santa Cruz’s Dynamics Autonomous Navigation Surface Engineering and Robotics Lab. The project was a design for an exoskeleton people could wear to help with physical therapy on their upper bodies.

She was thrilled to get the offer for her Cisco job during finals week. She starts the position in July.

“It is really rewarding to see the finish line in sight and be able to generate income after college,” she said.