Computer science major Arjun Subramonian graduated summa cum laude in March 2021, amassing not only multiple top awards, but also raising awareness of LGBTQ+ and other underserved communities around Los Angeles.
Subramonian (they/them/theirs) is the recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Bachelor of Science Award at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. They also received the school-wide Chancellor’s Service and Engineering Student Welfare awards, in addition to an honorable mention as an outstanding undergraduate researcher from the Computing Research Association.
Aside from their academic acumen, Subramonian has also been active in building equitable spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. They co-founded QWER Hacks, the first student-organized, collegiate LGBTQ+ hackathon in the U.S. The inaugural event took place in person in January 2020 and moved online in January 2021 due to COVID. The annual, 24-hour hackathon brought together more than 200 hackers from across the globe and featured supportive and queer-friendly apps.
“At QWER Hacks, I created a welcoming and inclusive environment by organizing inspirational speeches and workshops from QT [queer and transgender] role models on topics ranging from biases in deep-learning models and how the Trevor Project is applying AI [artificial intelligence] to prioritize QT youth in crisis, to impostor syndrome and educational technology,” Subramonian said.
Collaborating with co-organizers from across UCLA, QWER Hacks was not only a platform for students to get creative with hacking skills, but also offered a safe space for LGBTQ+ community members and allies to connect with role models in the tech industry.
Subramonian facilitated intersectional mentorship groups for attendees to have conversations with other engineers and scientists who share their identity. “Through the groups, I created spaces for often-erased QT voices to be heard, like those of bi/pan people of color and trans and gender-non-conforming individuals,” they said.
In addition to being transformative, the experience empowered Subramonian to advocate for the many diverse and talented queer people in tech. “Most importantly, I am grateful that my QWER Hacks co-organizers created a space for me to embrace my identity and be openly queer in tech,” Subramonian shared.
As Outreach Director of ACM AI at UCLA, Subramonian wanted to make sure AI education is accessible to everyone. They organized and taught machine learning at Title I schools in LA and helped develop interactive educational technology on AI concepts. Subramonian created the You Belong in AI! podcast, designed to encourage marginalized students to pursue AI learning through inspiring interviews with researchers in the field.
Subramonian also served as an advisor, leading diversity and inclusion initiatives at ACM at UCLA — ACM AI’s umbrella organization and the largest computer science student organization in Southern California.
They hosted allyship spaces and set actionable goals to take concrete steps in making the organization more welcoming of everyone through increased accessibility, inclusive language and mental health support.
“I learned to always listen to and amplify often-erased voices. The first step in achieving this was to acknowledge my own positionality and regularly remind myself of the privileges from which I benefit,” Subramonian said. “By doing so, I became better at reaching out to and understanding the lived experiences of marginalized individuals.”
Along the way, Subramonian found that it is important to lead with confidence without being easily deterred by critical feedback. While one should make necessary adjustment in response to constructive suggestions, Subramonian said sometimes negative feedback could be a result of miscommunication that required simple clarification instead of a change in direction.
For UCLA students interested in creating a better environment for themselves and others, Subramonian stressed the need for advocacy and self-reliance.
“I learned that if you don’t see a space for yourself and other individuals who share your identity, be loud and demand change. And if you can, create that space,” Subramonian said.
Supported by a Eugene V. Cota-Robles fellowship, Subramonian will continue their graduate education this fall at UCLA Samueli, pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science under the guidance of professor Yizhou Sun.