Natalia Luzuriaga knows firsthand the power of technology to make people’s lives better having overcome her own experiences with partial hearing loss.
“I was always taught to help others out,” said the fourth-year computer science student at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and recipient of the 2022 Levi James Knight, Jr. Scholarship. “I find a lot of fulfillment in being able to help people and guide them on the path of becoming who they want to be.”
This mindset has been with Luzuriaga ever since she was a child, and helped her to earn the scholarship that was established by Evalyn Knight, whose husband, Levi Knight, Jr., worked at UCLA for more than two decades. The scholarship was created to recognize outstanding students from across all of UCLA Samueli’s engineering disciplines.
When Luzuriaga was in first grade, she failed a test for the first time. But it wasn’t a test for which she could study. It was a hearing test.
Luzuriaga was taken by surprise when she was diagnosed with mild-moderate hearing loss and thought initially that it must have been a mistake. After all, she was able to hear people talk just fine, except when they’d whisper. She was subsequently fitted for hearing aids, which helped her hear things clearly for the first time, but it also made her feel insecure and self-conscious in the beginning.
“It was something that I didn’t want people to know about; I would always keep my hair down and never put it up in a ponytail,” she said. “But I told my friends about it, and they were like, ‘Oh, this is so cool! Can I see it?’ That’s when I realized it’s not something to be ashamed of, but it’s actually a really cool part of my identity.”
Having experienced how technology can be leveraged to improve her day-to-day life, Luzuriaga created her first app during a hackathon while she was in high school. Inspired by her peers who had much more severe hearing loss, Luzuriaga developed an app called “sPeach” so that her friends and others could practice pronouncing words correctly without relying on the assistance of a speech therapist. The app employs speech recognition technology to enable direct user feedback via smartphones so it helps build independence and confidence.
“That was the first app I built that wasn’t for entertainment purposes. I built games before that, but this was an actual app that people could use, and they could actually benefit from,” Luzuriaga said. “So that’s when I realized whatever I decided to work on in the future, I want to make sure that it really helps people in some way.”
Luzuriaga’s passion for creating new tech didn’t stop there. When it came time for college, the East Coast native wanted a change in scenery, and a place buzzing with promising up-and-coming tech discoveries. What better place than Southern California and UCLA!
“It’s just a fantastic school. It has many active student organizations doing very impactful work, which I knew I wanted to be a part of,” she said. She chose to major in computer science not because of a desire to work for well-established big tech companies but because of the skillsets she can learn and translate into new tech to help make people’s lives easier.
Growing up in a close-knit family, Luzuriaga said the transition to the West Coast culture and surroundings wasn’t easy at first. And just as she started to feel more at home after her freshman year, the pandemic hit. As remote learning took effect at UCLA, Luzuriaga found herself without an internship or job. But she and her friends were itching to work on something new. So, they enrolled in Bruin Labs, a 10-week accelerator program put on by Bruin Entrepreneurs that teaches participants how to create their own start-ups.
Luzuriaga and her friends created Hussle, a freelance marketplace mobile app that supports college students in starting and managing their own small businesses of selling products or offering services to others on campus. The app was launched in April and already has more than 200 users.
“We noticed that there are people on campus cutting hair, there are people on campus doing manicures, but the only way you can find them is through word of mouth or Instagram,” Luzuriaga said. “So we wanted to make a platform all UCLA students are on and that will allow people to grow their small businesses by being able to reach their target audience.”
With the help of the scholarship, Luzuriaga said she is grateful to have some extra time to devote to extracurricular activities. She is a part of Nova — Tech for Good, a student organization that aims to build technical solutions for nonprofits within the LA area and beyond. Luzuriaga serves as a project lead for building a mobile app called “iiDecide,” which is an iOS chatting app that connects victims of sexual assault so that they can talk about their experiences in a safe and comfortable space. “The mission and how impactful it will be for that community is definitely something that really resonates with me, and it also aligns with my values of why I decided to go into computer science in the first place,” she said.
Luzuriaga also belongs to Sigma Eta Pi, an entrepreneurship fraternity on campus, through which she gets to meet like-minded individuals who are into entrepreneurship and the startup and venture capital space. She served on the Society of Women Engineers’ advocacy committee that hosts events to encourage women engineers to advocate for themselves. Having volunteered to teach coding classes in high school, she has hosted workshops for exploretech.la, an annual event where high school students come to UCLA to learn how to code and explore tech.
When she first came to UCLA, Luzuriaga said she felt a lot of pressure to go into big tech, which is what she saw many of her peers doing. But following her passions for entrepreneurship taught her that there are many different ways to find success as a software engineer and that it’s OK to not follow traditional paths.
Through it all, Luzuriaga credits everything she has accomplished so far to the strong work ethic she learned from her parents and encourages other students to not be afraid of putting in extra effort to achieve their goals.
“Stay true to yourself; make sure you really think about what you want to do in life and target companies that align with the type of work you want to be doing,” she said. “And then from there, you can create your own path that you’re looking forward to, and you’re building the life that you want to have.”
Her second piece of advice? “Work hard and never underestimate yourself,” she said. “I’m not naturally intelligent and struggled a lot with my academics, especially computer science. But when you believe in yourself, you’ll be surprised with what you are capable of and can accomplish.”