Elena Cabello admits that it took a semester of long nights, Googling and asking other students “a lot of weird questions” before she fully connected with the exhilaration that is computer science.
“I was studying alongside some people who had been coding (computer programming) since they were eight years old and I was struggling to open a terminal,’’ she laughingly recalls.
But despite not having the recommended HSC maths or finely tuned computer skills, her professors saw in her the ability to succeed, and they were not disappointed.
Four years on Elena, a Westpac Young Technologists Scholar, has completed her Bachelor of Computer Science degree at UOW and is heading to Sweden this year to study at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology before she returns to do her Masters in 2020.
Her success if anything is sweeter because of the hurdles she overcame starting from a young age when she had difficulties adjusting to school.
She went on to become a diligent and artistically gifted student at St Mary’s Star of the Sea College in Wollongong where she graduated at the top of the class in multi-media and top 10 per cent for visual art and general mathematics.
At UOW’s open day in 2015 she intended signing up for a double degree in arts and commerce but events took a life-changing twist.
“Instead, I walked out with an application for computer science and a pamphlet on the Westpac Young Technologists Scholarship that was handed to me after I’d walked into the wrong lecture room,’’ she says.
“What changed my mind that day was seeing a few robots on display. I think robots are cool so I found a field that could deal with them when I struck up a conversation with the computer science lecturer (Dr Angela Piper).
“She asked me a few questions and seemed confident I could do the course.”
That confidence inspired the young student to not only take the leap into computer science but to also apply for the scholarship.
“The financial help ($5000 per year) gave me stability to focus on my studies, but I was more worried about filling gaps in my maths and computer knowledge, so I knew I’d be needing the support it offered,’’ Elena says.
As expected, it was a rough ride initially to catch up with other students but UOW’s free tutoring for maths students proved a godsend.
“I worked throughout uni so sometimes I’d be in the computer labs after work from 7pm to 1am to stay on track,’’ she recalls.
The Westpac Young Technologists Scholarship included a unique program of experiences including a range of opportunities for scholars to engage with potential mentors and like-minded peers. Westpac Young Technologist scholars become part of the Westpac 100 Scholars Network for life. Membership to this network gives scholars access to one of Australia’s most diverse meetings of like-minds and is designed to be inspiring, influential and a life-long learning experience.
Westpac Scholars Trust CEO Susan Bannigan says the network has been a powerful tool for the scholarship program.
“With lifelong access to professional development and unlimited networking opportunities, scholars have the power to transform big ideas into real solutions,” she says.
Elena says, “it was designed really well to take people like me from behind their computers and out into the wider world to give them the confidence to communicate with people from all levels and disciplines.’’
With help from UOW, the scholarship also funded Elena’s participation in a study tour of China last year.
“I was working with a lot of law students on different projects which made me re-think how I approach a problem. Tech and science people like straightforward and specific instructions. Working with law students who need to be convinced of a certain strategy made me aware I would need to be creative in my arguments for what I was doing. It was a really worthwhile exercise for us all.”
Looking back Elena has no doubts she made the right career choice and is constantly enthralled by the power of technology to identify and solve everyday problems.
“And it’s not just the big things like moon landings but just about everything we do from switching on the microwave to checking the weather forecast.
“And what I love about coding is that you don’t get trapped into one area of study so, for instance, if I ever decide to do robotics later it is not a massive leap to cross over.”
Elena is aware that the scholarship has been a tremendous help to her in terms of confidence building and pushing her to always do her best. She is keen to return the favour by maintaining the chain of support by mentoring students like herself.
“The great thing now is I’m seeing students come in who were in year 7 when I was at school so I love the idea of an ongoing mentoring role in the scholarship program, particularly for those from regional areas like Wollongong who have to struggle a bit with distance to attend networking events,’’ she says.
Elena says her success story would not be complete without mentioning her parents, who are immigrants from Spain and worked beyond expectations to give her the best chances in life.
“They experienced great hardships when they arrived in Australia but they still managed to become high level academics in their particular fields. I don’t think I’m the smartest person on the planet but they taught me that hard work is the best way to get ahead because you earn it.”
The Westpac Scholars Trust was launched in 2014 with a $100 million gift from Westpac to fund 100 scholarships every year, forever. The Trust announced in April 2019 that it had awarded its 400th scholarship, representing an investment of $4.2 million. The program is designed to bring big ideas to life in the areas of technology and strengthening Australia-Asia ties.