Derek J. Russell will graduate with a degree in computer engineering this spring from Cal Poly. Credit: Eyasu Betwos | Courtesy

After 10 years of retaking courses at community college, late night studying and walks home after the bus had already terminated for the night, Derek J. Russell is graduating this spring with a degree in computer engineering. 

The standard track through Cal Poly’s computer engineering (CPE) program has a suggested four-year academic track and 97 to 99 major units, 51 to 52 support credits and 44 general education requirements, according to the 2021-2022 CPE flowchart. But Russell’s journey through college first started in 2013, when he began studying mathematics at Cal State East Bay (CSUEB). 

“Every struggle, every [bit of] pain, all these different things is what makes it a unique story,” Russell said. “If I didn’t have this, I don’t stand out.”

Russell was enrolled in special education courses since he was a child, where his mom thought he had a better chance of being supported for his learning differences. At CSUEB, he had an Individual Education Planner and took every possible opportunity to attend office hours and get one-on-one’s with his professors. 

However, after a year at CSUEB, Russell had failed several classes and his parents decided he should switch to community college to save money. He enrolled at Chabot College in Hayward in 2014. Russell decided to research where exactly in the world of math and science he wanted to settle in – that’s when he came across engineering. He realized, based on his academic track record, that deciding to pursue an engineering degree might take up most of his 20s.

“I remember my dad always said ‘don’t be a bus driver, like me, be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an engineer’,” he said. “I always took that to heart.”

Russell had to start with pre-college level Algebra, eventually making his way through seven different math classes at Chabot.

“That’s what was so crazy is when I look back on it and in those different moments, it seemed impossible for every class,” he said.

He had met with now retired Chabot College professor and dean Timothy Dave to discuss his class struggles and have a mediated conversation with another professor. Dave ended up staying in touch with Russell and eventually wrote him a recommendation to the Management Leadership for Tomorrow Career Prep Program which he was accepted to.

“You also have to realize, it’s not about the time, it’s about where your destination is and the journey itself,” Dave said of Russell’s journey. “The fact is, you’ll have the knowledge, you’ll have the degree, and that’s that.”

Toward the end of his first year at Chabot, Russell was still struggling in Procedural Programming (CS 14) and was going to have to retake it over the summer. At the same time, he was suffering from the loss of his godfather, who passed away on May 14, 2015.

Russell chose to stay in school that summer, dedicating his energy to passing CS 14. On his second attempt, he ended the course with an A. During that time, Russell became familiar with the janitorial staff from staying on campus so late, often accepting rides home from Chabot mathematics professor Kyle Ishibashi when it was dark out. 

Despite never having Ishibashi as a professor, Russell regularly visited him in Chabot’s STEM center for additional tutoring. They have remained in touch to this day – Russell’s mom has made Ishibashi Thanksgiving dinners, on occasion. 

“He literally is the most determined students I’ve ever seen. The amount of work he’s put into getting to where he is, is it’s more than I think a lot of other people could do,” Ishibashi said. “I think people would give up if they met as many hardships as he did.”

After his father passed, Russell’s cousin Zach Singleton decided to reach out. The two had never been very close, but Singleton lost his own father nearly a decade before and recalled how tough the loss was on his own life. He decided to take Russell and his brother on a trip of their choice, to open their eyes to somewhere new. They went to Miami for three days.

“We’ve been involved with each other, Derek and I, ever since,” Singleton said. “I would say we after that trip went from being cousins to more like brothers.”

Singleton was aware that Derek had academic setbacks, but that he also had “unparalleled work ethic.” Singleton, who worked at Google in strategic operations at the time and now serves as the Head of Product Management for Privacy, Equity and Safety at Uber. He saw Derek’s drive in school in the context of his own time working as a manager in the tech industry.

“When we’re hiring people, there’s a certain level of baseline competence you want someone to have, but you can never find on a resume, how hard working they are, how compassionate they’re going to be, how they’re going to respond to failure,” Singleton said. “But Derek has all those intangibles in droves.”

Singleton decided to stick by Russell’s side through community college. He took him on work trips, introduced Russell to his friends in various professional industries and helped him work through his personal challenges. The two instituted a daily practice they call “meeting time,” where they call to discuss strategy in career and school, dealing with setbacks and encouraging one another to keep reaching for new goals.

Singleton decided to start a mentorship program with his company called Uber Career Prep, designed to mentor underrepresented individuals interested in pursuing a career in STEM. Russell was able to attend workshops, but Singleton made sure he was fully prepared before applying for the full program. After four years, he applied and was accepted into the Class of 2021.

Russell remained at Chabot until 2020, on track to earn a second associate’s degree in engineering. Russell began to apply to four-year universities, with Singleton by his side. The two went on campus tours and pieced through all options best suited to Russell’s goals in engineering.

He began considering his options. His top choice was University of Waterloo in Toronto, Canada, where Singleton lives. 

As they toured universities and traveled around California, Russell and Singleton were together in San Francisco. There, Russell met OpenAI CEO Sam Altman – OpenAI being the home of the popular chatbot ChatGPT – who was speaking at the Instacart headquarters. The two chatted, with Russell asking Altman questions following the presentation.

They decided to attend a second information session, traveling to Canada where Altman was slated to speak at Waterloo.

“In San Francisco, I was like, ‘Well, he’s gonna remember [Russell] from that talk, [he was] one of the few people who went and shook his hand and spoke to him afterwards,’” Singleton said. “And it was a small, small setting anyway.”

Russell ended up reaching out to Altman on Twitter, eventually asking if he’d be interested in writing him a letter of recommendation to the University of Waterloo.

He got the recommendation, in which Altman wrote, “My interaction and relationship with Derek was brief and limited to the speaking event. However, he shared his personal statement essay with me and after learning about his ability to overcome his learning disability, personal hardships and successfully completing two internships at NASA, I am confident that Derek has the ability to thrive at Waterloo University.”

Russell was accepted to Waterloo for engineering. But as he looked into attending the university as an international student, he saw that many of his credits from Chabot would not transfer. 

The decision then came down to San Diego State University (SDSU) or Cal Poly. For Russell, moving away for college was never going to be about the parties, greek life or even the extracurriculars. He had his eyes set on earning a CPE degree and decided that Cal Poly would provide him with the best curriculum and network to achieve a great job post-graduation.

When Russell came across Cal Poly, he was a bit skeptical of transitioning to a school that was both far from a big city and a predominantly white institution (PWI).

“I literally remember, like, sitting on my couch and watching vlog videos of what it’s like to be a student at Cal Poly,” Russell said.

Russell ended up accepting the admission to Cal Poly. But in the midst of the pandemic, his mom questioned whether he should move to SLO, or continue being a student remote. Singleton encouraged him to move to campus, where he could be fully focused in his engineering curriculum.

One of Russell’s first interactions with people in SLO was not a pleasant one. He and Singleton went to Sidecar, a bar and restaurant located on Broad Street. As they dined, they started up a conversation with two women.

They had asked if Russell went to Cal Poly and he replied yes, for CPE.

“She basically concluded, like, I got into Cal Poly provisionary because I was Black. They let me in because I was Black,” he said. “So once again, there’s that first interaction and encounter with subtle racism.”

Russell decided that if there was one thing he would never stop doing throughout his time at Cal Poly, it would be to remain true to himself.

“People make a lot of assumptions, thinking that I’m here just for sports and all that, that I’m not here for engineering,” he said. “Sometimes I come to class, sitting in the front row with my durag on. Just to fuck with people, but like, you got to be yourself.”

Russell also faced instances of racist remarks in the classroom. One of his professors, when asking about Russell’s senior project, suggested he develop a basketball app.

“I personally believe that, despite all of the negative things that I experience because of the color of my skin and who I am, at the same time, it has prepared me for the real world,” he said. “Talking to white people, dealing white people – it’s a skill that you got to develop.”

Director of the TRIO Achievers program Dr. Stacy Nikyos met Russell during the winter quarter of his first year at Cal Poly. He was seeking tutoring in a class and the two ended up working closely together over the past two years.

“I’ve just watched as he has finally been given the opportunities that maybe other students on campus get a little more easily,” Nikyos said. “I’ve seen him just grow as a human being, and be able to reach those goals more successfully or more smoothly, whereas before it didn’t feel like there were many people on campus on his side.”

Throughout his time in San Luis Obispo, Russell has pursued therapy which he recommends to those around him. If not therapy, he says it’s important to find a “safe space” somewhere “off-campus.” He’s found that managing his personal life has helped with how he engages with others in professional spaces.

Russell is set to graduate on June 18. He has a job waiting for him at the World Trade Center in NYC, working as a software engineer for Moody’s analytics.

“Going through [those] long 10 years, it was worth it,” Russell said. “Because look where I’m going.”