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Code for Empathy

In a top-tier and oftentimes competitive environment, a computer science student is empowered to break down barriers and create connections.

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Rosaleen Xiong in front of the computer science building.

Rosaleen Xiong, a computer science major at The University of Texas at Austin, has learned to lean into challenges.

“Being a queer woman, it was hard to feel like I belonged,” she said of the largely nonqueer and male-dominated field. “So, I became an advocate for myself.”

Whether she is volunteering with the Orange Jackets or researching policy at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, Xiong is always working toward a more empathetic and connected world.

That is one reason she chose computer science, a field she believes will allow her to make the most impact. However, when she began her degree, she admits she felt surprisingly alone.

Xiong wanted to meet peers with similar interests in computing, and her experiences led her to focus on connecting the LGBTQ+ community. So, she created Q++, the first UT organization serving LGBTQ+ students in technology.

She says that the opportunity to build the group was there, but it just needed someone to take it. Xiong received lots of support for her idea and found that the UT Computer Science Department was more than happy to help her along the way, providing funding and resources.

The organization is a success, and Xiong now serves as president of the 50 members or so and growing community.

“I hope at Q++ people have a sense of belonging and know this is a space where they can achieve what they can achieve.”

The experience has inspired her to continue to connect with more groups on campus and leverage her technical skills and degree to create change.

“Regardless of who you talk to on campus, they are passionate about something,” she said. “Just the variety, diversity and breadth of subjects that students care about is just so wide and encompassing, and so many of them are focused on promoting change and goodness in the world.”

This year, Xiong is part of a student research team that won the President’s Award for Global Learning, a $25,000 grant dedicated to international research with entrepreneurial social impact. Her team is aiming to build a mobile app to equip Indian health care providers with tools to equitably serve LGBTQ+ patients.

“India recently decriminalized homosexuality, but the stigma is still there,” said Xiong. “Our app aims to bridge the gap between what health care providers seek to provide and what queer patients need. Right now, they lack the tools and resources to do it resourcefully and mindfully. That’s where our team comes in.”

As the project lead developer, Xiong will help her team create the app this coming spring and will be traveling abroad with them in the summer to collect real-world data on its efficacy. They want to publish their findings and eventually use the app to help local Austin clinics.

Without studying at UT, she says, she would never have become involved with this unique project nor met so many like-minded peers with interests and ambitions mirroring hers.

Even with her success, Xiong says she still struggles with imposter syndrome from time to time, but building empathetic communities and championing diversity ultimately empowers her to act. “You have to be comfortable being challenged,” she said. “And sharing that struggle with others going through the same thing is so, so important.”

Today, Xiong says she’s found her sense of belonging. When asked what advice she would give to her pre-college self, she said: “A lot of times through talking to other people, UT may seem competitive, and while that’s good, just remember people are running their own race. It’s not a competition; it’s about pursuing the things you’re most interested in — and steadfastly so.”