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SWENexter Shivani Desai Receives Gates Scholarship

In addition to being a FY20 Global Innovator Award winner and an outstanding representation of SWENext, Shivani Desai is now also a Gates Scholarship recipient! Read on to learn more about her STEM experience, what it felt like to receive The Gates Scholarship and what she plans to do with her future!
SWENexter Shivani Desai Receives Gates Scholarship - Gates Scholarship
SWENexter Shivani Desai Receives Gates Scholarship - Gates Scholarship
Shivani Desai

In addition to being a FY20 Global Innovator Award winner and an outstanding representation of SWENext, Shivani Desai is now also a Gates Scholarship recipient!

The Gates Scholarship (TGS) is a highly selective, last-dollar scholarship for outstanding, minority, high school seniors from low-income households. Each year, the scholarship is awarded to 300 of these student leaders, with the intent of helping them realize their maximum potential.

Scholars receive funding for the full cost of attendance that is not already covered by other financial aid and the expected family contribution, as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or the methodology used by a Scholar’s college or university.

Shivani took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with us about her STEM experience, what it felt like to receive The Gates Scholarship and what she plans to do with her future!

Congratulations, Shivani!

First off, we’d like to wish you a HUGE congratulations! What an accomplishment! How did you feel when you received the news you’d been selected as a Gates Scholar?

Thank you so much! Opening up the decision was definitely intense, but I was with my mom and sister after just finishing a great dinner and nearing the end of my senior year, so I knew everything would be alright no matter what. As soon as I saw the “Congratulations”, we all screamed. I think that this Scholarship adds not just a layer of financial security, but emotional and mental comfort to feel more optimistic about focusing on my future. Because the application process took the entire year, it definitely felt as if a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I ended the night with excitement and immense gratitude that I was able to continue higher education without paying a dollar. The funny thing is, about an hour before the decision came out, I broke my coffee pot and shattered the glass over the kitchen floor. I’m not very superstitious, but my parents told me that glass shattering is a sign of good luck coming!

Applying for scholarships can be daunting and time-consuming, but it can obviously have an enormous payoff! How would you explain the application process for The Gates Scholarship?

The Gates Scholarship application opens up on in late summer around the end of July, but don’t worry! I didn’t submit my phase one application until early September. 

Here’s the timeline breakdown:

  • Mid-September: Phase 1 application due
  • December: Phase 1 results
  • January: Phase 2 application due
  • March: Phase 2 results
  • April: Final selection

The first phase is a form that requires personal information about extracurriculars, grades and background data. It doesn’t take very long, but it’s a good idea to create your profile early so you can double check what info is required and make sure it’s accurate, detailed and filled to the best of your ability! Over the summer before senior year, try to have a resume ready to refer to for all your experiences and awards to make scholarship applications easy.

A little bit after the first phase, you’re required to submit some documents including your FAFSA Student Aid Report, CSS Profile and Counselor Verification. Do your FAFSA and CSS as soon as they open up in the fall!

After making it to the next phase, you’ll be writing some short essays and submitting two teacher evaluations; I asked the two teachers who wrote most of my college recs. Make sure to thank them for their time and effort in completing the recommendations!

I personally enjoyed the application essays — the four of them had unique prompts that required some reflection. The great thing is that by this time, I had submitted my college applications and had some essay material to build off of!

After waiting a few months, you’ll get information about the final phase: interviews. I made it to the interview round feeling great because I LOVE interviews. I had done several virtual interviews by then, but even if you don’t enjoy them, your interviewer will definitely make you feel comfortable.

My #1 tip is to turn the interview into a conversation instead of a robotic question-and-answer session. Get some laughs and anecdotes in! Show your personality — the interview phase is the last impression you can make before the decisions come out. 

Finally, after an entire school year of waiting and working and more waiting, decisions will come out via the applicant portal and through email. No matter what, be proud of all your hard work! 

In general, my biggest piece of advice for scholarships is to (1) be organized and (2) NEVER STOP LOOKING. You will have to apply to several in order to win just one. Don’t be discouraged.

Make a spreadsheet like I did and keep track of scholarships, their applications & relevant passwords for portals, due dates and completion of requirements. It will help SO MUCH when staying organized without feeling overwhelmed.

There are many places to look for scholarships; here are some:

  • Organizations you are a part of (ex: SWE, national honor societies)
  • Your school (ask your counselors)
  • Your county/school system (ask your counselors and look through the website)
  • Local businesses (credit unions, shops, city councils; ask your counselors)
  • Reddit/Discord communities (if you’re an FGLI student, join Questbridge applicant communities)
  • Websites (scholarshiphub, fastweb, google)

Major scholarships, like Gates and Questbridge, start their application phases early on. Keep an eye out for those in August so you don’t miss the deadline! This includes others like the Coca Cola Scholarship, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Elks MVS, etc.

After the big ones, look for smaller scholarships as those usually don’t have such early deadlines. After the first few applications, you’re going to feel like a pro! You’ll have all the information on hand and essay materials to build off of for inspiration. It will all be worth it- any amount helps!

Good luck and know you’re not alone: we’re all in this together!

Nearly 35,000 students applied for The Gates Scholarship and only 300 were selected. If you had to guess, what about your story and/or background do you think stood out most in helping you get selected?

Wow. The statistics definitely surprise me every time. With scholarships and even colleges, it’s hard to say what “specific” traits can get you in, because sometimes it’s pure luck and coincidence with such exclusive acceptance rates. However, I am proud of all my hard work and my guesses don’t mean to say that anyone who didn’t get this scholarship doesn’t have the same skillset as I do — everyone is different. 

I really think that my story stood out the most, especially the way I was able to paint a picture of how my childhood slowly evolved into what I was able to accomplish. Everyone can work hard, but the important thing is selling yourself well and specifically getting into all the aspects that make you unique. I did a lot of extracurriculars in school while balancing top classes because I knew the importance of education in my future at a young age — values my family instilled in me. I talked about how my background motivated me to go into business so I could help nonprofits and families I personally saw struggling during my work in the community. Everything circled back to one another. I also really love interviews, and I walked out of mine feeling confident. I basically turned it into a 30-minute conversation and took the time to bring in unique stories and funny anecdotes or a few jokes here and there so my interviewer wouldn’t get the same content that anyone could find on my resume I had sent in earlier.

What extracurricular activities, clubs and/or organizations have you participated in? Do you feel that these additional experiences have helped you grow? How so?

First and foremost: SWENext. I discovered the Society of Women Engineers for a career project in the 8th grade, and by the time my freshman year was halfway through, I knew I wanted to start a SWENext Section in 2018. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of many firsts: we won the club challenge two years in a row, got to go to WE19 in Anaheim, I won the Global Innovator Award, volunteered and inspired young engineers across the county, and built the club from the ground up with my best friends and fellow students who joined. I was able to see just how expansive the world of engineering could be and how inspiring such a large network of female professionals could be in opening doors of opportunity for girls of all ages. 

SWENexter Shivani Desai Receives Gates Scholarship - Gates Scholarship
Shivani and fellow SWENexters at WE19 in Anaheim, California

In addition to SWENext, I participated heavily in school activities: I was a four-year officer and eventually President of Student Council, where I helped plan many events; competitor and officer/President for our Mu Alpha Theta Math Team & National Math Honor Society; competitor and officer for our Speech and Debate Team, where I competed in Public Forum; officer and later President of our Girls Who Code Chapter and was also on the county leadership team. I did volunteering through Beta, National Honor Society and more, and loved getting around before COVID hit. 

However, a big part of my time was devoted to a charity that I joined as a sophomore: a group of high school students working to put on a tasting event to raise money for Relay for Life, a subsidiary of the American Cancer Society. This was a completely independent project that transformed my future. I learned how to cold call, make pitches, network, plan events and meet local businesses to eventually put on the event. For my second year, I served as CEO and built a new team from scratch after the previous graduated to host a successful second event and donate over $13,000. 

I’ve also had the honor of co-founding CodeHers Collective after two siblings pitched the idea and started the organization. We design and teach coding lessons for free across the globe online, also hosting summer camps and hackathons and more! 

Extracurriculars and spending time involved with the community are what motivate me every day to learn from those around me. Life is built through experiences, and I will always treasure the memories I’ve made on these projects. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Who has been your inspiration — both in the world of STEM, and life in general?

My family. I take inspiration from my mom’s attention to detail and thoroughness, my dad’s empathy and understanding, and my sister’s confidence and mindset. As the youngest child, I realize just how much I’ve absorbed from those closest to me. 

In the world of STEM, I have always looked up to my friend Alice Ao (2019 Global Innovator), currently studying computer science at Yale. She’s always been in the year above me, which means I’ve had the honor of watching her grow and see her accomplishments. She’s incredibly intelligent and ALWAYS willing to help others, which is why I know she’s the best person to ask for advice. Alice is someone to admire and look out for, because she’s always doing big things. I’m so happy I know her and cannot wait to see all she continues to accomplish.

In the business world, particularly with my projects and extracurriculars, I learned the most from Johnny, a businessman and consultant who taught me many firsts about perfecting the handshake, networking, and life in general.

I also take inspiration from my teachers, including my SWENext section sponsor Mrs. Yancey Miller. She was my freshman year chemistry teacher and senior year AP chemistry teacher, and a HUGE part of my high school career. I am always in awe of how much she is able to teach while being the kindest person ever.

Where will you be attending school, and what do you plan to study?

I will be attending the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Go Quakers!!

SWENexter Shivani Desai Receives Gates Scholarship - Gates Scholarship

As a Wharton student, I’ll be graduating with a degree in economics and I plan on concentrating in finance and business economics & public policy. I also hope to minor in computer science!

What do you envision as your ideal future?

I want a future where I live a life of new experiences. I see myself on the move, meeting new people, traveling new places and solving new problems. I will continue to learn and also stabilize by supporting my family. 

Oh, and it would be nice if it wasn’t cut short by climate change.

What advice or words of wisdom do you have for other students who are exploring their passions and paving the way toward their futures?

Do what you love and don’t settle for less.

I remember deciding that I wanted to be an electrical engineer when I discovered SWE with that career project in the 8th grade. And then I took physics. 

I remember deciding that I wanted to be a politician. And then the 2020 election happened. 

I remember deciding that I wanted to be a software engineer. And then I realized I don’t have to box myself into just one career.

I can be anything I want to be, and so can you! This involves business, computer science, politics and more! This is why I kept branching out and trying new clubs at school — they really helped me narrow in on my passions.

Keep trying and seeing what fits. Find your people who get you, and learn from them!

Remember your inner passion and drive and what motivates you to have a career in the first place. 

Don’t think of rejection as failure, but instead as REDIRECTION. If this all seems overwhelming to think about, don’t worry — I felt the same way. Take life step by step and always accept new opportunities. Journaling every night or even mind-mapping your vision and plans will always ease the stress of having thoughts crowd your mind constantly. 

Please don’t go through high school and do activities to ‘get you in’ to a certain college or career. Do what you like, because you won’t get this valuable time back. It’s your childhood! Live life to the fullest because there is always more in store.

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