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Grow with Google scholars at Udacity HQ
Google Scholars meet with other Udacity students at Udacity HQ

Last week, 12 Udacity students got the opportunity of a lifetime. Google flew them out to Google I/O in California as recognition for their amazing work in the Grow with Google initiative’s Developer Scholarship Challenge! This massive three-day event is Google’s flagship annual developer conference, famous for its announcements of incredible new technology, and a unique chance to network with the tech industry’s movers and shakers.

The Grow with Google initiative springs from Google and Udacity’s long-running partnership, and shared commitment to supporting a global community of deserving learners. Successful applicants from around the world are sponsored by Google to start learning transformational tech skills with Udacity, and top performers receive full Nanodegree program scholarships. The 12 students Google brought to I/O were selected for their truly impressive commitment and performance on their programs. One of those students, Sara Blevins, was even recently featured on Google’s blog.

In addition to experiencing everything that I/O had to offer, these 12 Google Scholars were invited to join us at Udacity HQ for an informal mixer. There, they had the opportunity to meet fellow Udacity learners and alumni, many of whom were also still excitedly debriefing after making their own journeys to be part of I/O.

I was honored to attend the event, and to experience the excitement firsthand.


Udacity’s Nick Blumenthal with some of the Google Scholars

4:25 pm

The event hasn’t even started, but I’m already enjoying the opportunity to speak to some of the Google Scholars. They’ve come from all over the world, and it’s clear their backgrounds vary widely, but one common theme quickly emerges—their amazement that Google offered to fly them to I/O! One person tells me they nearly deleted the invitation as spam, while another says he had to confirm the email was real with his mentor before accepting it was really going to happen. I feel like I’m still seeing that initial excitement in their faces, and it’s wonderful!

Balázs Borzován is here on his first trip to the US, and says his colleagues back in Hungary were incredibly jealous when he told them he was going. He tells me the range of new technologies he has seen has been astounding.

“One of the highlights for me was seeing Google’s new learning technology. They were showing how you could do a biology degree entirely online via a VR set—looking at microscopes, manipulating things virtually with your hands! It was really amazing!”

4:40 pm

Background music starts playing, and there are at least 25 students here already.  People look remarkably fresh despite three days of conference sessions and networking. Many people still have I/O badges hanging around their necks, and they wear them with justifiable pride. People talk easily with one another, and it’s hard to believe so many of these people have never met in person.

5:10 pm

Doors have officially opened, and the crowd continues to swell. People are greeting mentors like old friends. The volume of chatter is increasing, and I’ve already overheard numerous groups discussing Google’s Duplex announcement.

The number of different accents I can hear is incredible. People have literally come from around the world for this. All united by a passion for learning. Krzysztof Łokaj has flown from Poland to be here, and the experience has clearly been an inspiring one:

“At work, I’ll be working on web development. But after everything I saw in the last few days, I’m convinced I want to learn more about AI, machine learning, and computer vision. I’m also planning to create my own company, to make progressive web applications because it’s a really new subject.”

5:25 pm

I spy one student who has brought his parents with him. They sit watching proudly from the sidelines as he goes off to mingle. Across the room, I see a child no more than 18 months old sporting a Google t-shirt. Even the infants here are very on-brand!

5:35 pm

Karen Baker, Udacity’s Alumni Community Manager, officially welcomes the lively mass of assembled students.

“On behalf of all of us, welcome to Udacity. Welcome home! I want to applaud all of you for coming. YOU are Udacity. So tonight is about celebrating you all.”

Everybody rushes to be part of a huge group photo, taken with a huge “Udacity!” cheer.

6:05 pm

I retreat to a quiet corner for a few moments, and marvel at the serious networking taking place across the event. Within minutes, two people sit down nearby, so that one can demonstrate his new app’s functionality. I count at least three other tables where similar things are happening.

Taking a break from discussing app ideas

I meet Apoorva Tiwari from India, who gives me a chance to hear about her app project. Her work is focused on promoting women’s safety, and Apoorva’s app features articles and YouTube videos on self defense and psychiatry. She is aiming to launch it in the next few weeks.

“I/O is really heaven for developers. I’m so thankful for Google for bringing me here. And I’m so thankful for Udacity’s platform, which has really helped me build the skills to develop my app and become the developer I am today.”

6:30 pm

The room clears suddenly, as a majority of attendees heads off on a tour around Udacity HQ. The silence left behind makes me aware of just how full of conversation the room had been.

I use the opportunity to catch up with Rose Dillon from the US, who has just experienced her second I/O. If you thought a sequel would dull her excitement, you’d be dead wrong.

“This year has surpassed everything. Before, I didn’t know what to expect. This time, I made more contacts, built my network, and really took the time to appreciate that all these incredible people are in one place to understand these amazing technologies!”

Rose is currently enrolled in the Android Developer Nanodegree program, and is an enthusiastic advocate for the Udacity approach to learning.

 “In traditional classrooms there’s a disconnect between what you learn and how you apply it. With Udacity, you’re learning from anywhere in the world and applying the knowledge immediately. It feels like the future. You just need the passion, you don’t need to go to an Ivy League school. You can build something and prove yourself.”

7:10 pm

I overhear one group sharing recruitment experiences. One person describes leaping straight from college to an amazing new role; another reports skipping the degree path entirely and using his Nanodegree program to land a new developer job. In the process of sharing stories, connections are being made. Contact details are swapped. Future meetings are arranged.

Aisha El-Badrawy is about to celebrate two milestone achievements—she’s earning her Computer Science degree and graduating from her Android Developer Nanodegree program. The atmosphere around I/O has helped focus her mind on what she wants to do next.

“It’s really inspired me to push myself further and try to learn more about machine learning. It’s definitely the trend now. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll go with my career, but I’m sure machine learning and natural language processing will play a role!”

7:45 pm

Empty pizza boxes are all that remain of the evening’s culinary offerings (much to this hungry writer’s disappointment!). People clutching Google bags and wheeling suitcases start making their goodbyes. Hugs are exchanged. New friends are sent off to catch flights. As I leave for my train, I see the Google Scholars congregating near the elevators, saying their own farewells. This global group has experienced something very special together over the past few days. Though they’re flying off to far-flung places and different futures, it’s clear they’ll always share this incredible I/O experience as a foundational part of their career stories.