Melissa Weckerle, UC Santa Cruz
Mansi Saini’s hackathon journey began after she read about an upcoming hackathon in a Girls Who Code alumni e-newsletter. Having only taken a two-week Girls Who Code web development camp to learn the basics of HTML and CSS, she decided to dive right in and see what hackathons were all about, hoping to gain new technical skills and meet new people along the way.
Now, two years, 14 hackathons, and countless mentorship and leadership roles later, Saini, a rising second-year computer science: computer game design student at the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering, has been named one of 50 Top hackers of 2022 by Major League Hacking (MLH). Each year, MLH, the official student hackathon league and the largest, global early-career developer community, selects 50 recipients from a pool of over 150,000 active community members worldwide for their exceptional contributions to the tech ecosystem and STEM education.
”To be selected is to have your achievements recognized as the top percent of the top percent of new technologists today,” said Nick Quinlan, MLH chief operating officer.
Saini was notably recognized for her commitment to supporting new hackers through various leadership and mentorship roles she’s held.
“I was a bit shocked to learn that I had won this award having entered the hackathon community about two years ago, but I was also proud to see how far I’ve come with my hackathon journey,” Saini said. “I remember thinking that hackathons were about breaking into computers, but in my first hackathon, I quickly learned that they were not. I started with knowing very little about coding, and now I have all this experience with front-end and back-end technologies, cloud products, and more. My participation in hackathons has fueled my desire to pursue a computer science degree and career in technology.”
Tapping into new passions
Saini competed in her first competitive hackathon during her senior year of high school. With minimal coding experience, she and her team of friends developed a website to help middle and high school students explore a broad range of career pathways and prepare for college.
Soon after completing her first hackathon, Saini joined TechTogether, a nonprofit organization that hosts programs and hackathons across the country with a focus on building an inclusive hacking community for women and non-binary individuals.
“TechTogether is one of the most inclusive communities that I have been a part of. I've had the opportunity to develop strong relationships with industry professionals and students, some of which have become good friends of mine,” Saini explained, who is currently a TechTogether mentor primarily working with first-time hackers.
It was through TechTogether that Saini learned about the MLH community. In addition to participating as a hackathon competitor, she has also taken on the roles of coach, mentor, judge, and organizer within the MLH organization. As Saini discovered a passion for computer science and worked to develop a suite of technical skills, she wanted to find a way to give back to the hackathon community. One of those ways has been helping others, especially new hackers, find their footing and build their computer science skills.
When asked what advice she has for students who want to get involved in hackathons but are lacking the confidence to get started, she said, “Just go for it. Hackathons are for everyone, regardless of your educational background.”
A community of women engineers
When it came to choosing a university to attend, finding a community of women engineers was one of the most important factors for Saini.
“One thing that differentiated the Baskin School of Engineering from the other engineering schools I got into was how many women were studying computer science,” Saini explained. “It’s important for me to be a part of a diverse and inclusive community.”
Saini decided on the Baskin Engineering computer science: computer game design program because she wanted to blend together her passions for programming and graphic design.
“My entire first-year experience at UC Santa Cruz was wonderful — from being surrounded by a welcoming community to meeting new friends in and out of my program, I enjoyed every bit of it,” Saini said. “Outside of my degree program and all the work around hackathons that I’ve done, I am also involved in the UCSC Adventure Rec program. Every outdoor activity I take part in is a great way to decompress from my busy schedule and help recharge my creativity.”
Over the next few years, Saini plans to continue participating in hackathons across the nation as a competitor, judge, coach, and mentor and explore the field of human-computer interaction.
“It’s amazing to have such a strong engineering community here at UC Santa Cruz. I used to be so intimidated being one of the few technology girls in the room,” Saini said. “But that fear has gone away at Baskin. Everyone is so friendly and always willing to help you succeed.”