Graduate Study Within Reach, Thanks to GEM and Adobe

October 27, 2020

From left to right: Melissa Duran; Andy Ybarra; Ruth Petit-Bois; Chinedu Ojukwu; JohannaSmith-Palliser; TJ Rhodes

By Meredith Alexander Kunz, Adobe Research

“Going to graduate school felt out of reach for someone like me,” Melissa Duran thought as an undergrad. “But when I heard about the GEM fellowship, that perception started to shift.”

Duran, now a software development engineer at Adobe, was trying to figure out her next steps when she discovered the National GEM Consortium. The Virginia-based non-profit works in partnership with corporations, government labs, and academic institutions to provide graduate fellowships and summer internships in STEM fields to students from underrepresented communities.

As a corporate GEM sponsor, Adobe offers support to an average of 10 new GEM fellows each year for their graduate studies. The company also gives these fellows a chance to experience what it’s like working in tech as an intern.Applications are open for 2021 GEM fellowships until November 13, 2020, and students who apply now may be sponsored by Adobe for support and internships in coming summers.

Fellows benefit from learning both at school and on the job. “I saw that not only would a GEM fellowship help with the financial aspects of obtaining an advanced degree—it would also allow me to get work experience at a company that matched my values and passions,” says Duran.

Duran’s GEM fellowship covered tuition, and the support helped her move out of state for grad school. “Leaving home and my comfort circle was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but it was also the most rewarding,” she says.  

After finishing her GEM program, Duran explains that “This fellowship transformed me, increasing my self-confidence and allowing me to be more present, engaged, and connected.”

A chance to explore

GEM’s relationship with Adobe began in 2012, when Adobe Research’s Sara Perkovic, director of research operations and communications, launched an initiative to make Adobe a corporate sponsor. To date, eight GEM fellows have been hired as full-time staff by Adobe, including Duran and others included here.

The GEM program offers a pathway to a master’s degree or PhD, facilitating tuition support from corporations and universities, a stipend that helps cover living expenses, and corporate internships.

Graduate school allows students a chance to explore their interests and gain valuable skills.  “Coming out of undergrad, I didn’t feel I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” says Andy Ybarra, now a computer scientist at Adobe. “When I found out I’d won a GEM Fellowship, I was excited. I would have the time to learn about different areas that I had a hint I was interested in, but hadn’t had time to explore.”

Ybarra, the first GEM fellow hired by Adobe, explains GEM’s impact this way: “I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t do it. I’d have moved closer to home and taken a job that may not have been the right fit for me. GEM really improved the trajectory of my career.”

Confidence boost

For Ruth Petit-Bois, now a computer scientist at Adobe, GEM support for her graduate studies changed her mindset. She began to look beyond her comfort zone. “I learned that risk-taking was something I could do,” Petit-Bois comments. “I had been playing it safe during my undergrad career, but as I went through graduate school, I felt I could try new things. I had more confidence in myself.”

She points out that many students are tempted to go straight into the working world after their undergraduate degree. But that could be a missed opportunity. Now that Petit-Bois has earned her master’s, she’s serving as an advocate for advanced degrees as well as GEM. “If you want to see change, be the change,” she says.

She’s already influenced at least one person: Her younger sister, who was also awarded a GEM fellowship and is earning a master’s.

Internship: A match made in heaven

Chinedu Ojukwu, now an Adobe software engineer, was awarded a GEM Fellowship while still deciding about graduate school and considering internship options. He remembers thinking during his Adobe internship interviews that working for the company “was a match made in heaven” for his skills and interests.

His Adobe internship as a GEM Fellow did not disappoint: “My project was put into production for the Experience Cloud, and I felt my work was very useful,” he says. “My team treated me like a regular team member. I saw I had what it takes to be a software engineer and got an introduction to Adobe’s work.” Ojukwu joined the team he interned with and continues to do cutting-edge projects.

Networking with other GEM Fellows and alums has encouraged Ojukwu as he builds his career.  “It’s inspiring to see what other GEM Fellows have done. It reinforces the high goals I set for myself,” he says.

Best of both worlds

“The GEM Fellowship allowed me to get the best of both worlds—a graduate degree in my field of choice, computer science, as well as practical industry experience through my internship with Adobe,” says Johanna Smith-Palliser, now a software developer/engineer at Adobe.

Preparation in academics as well as corporate internships helps GEM grads decide what they want out of their post-graduate jobs. “I had a lot of control over what the start of my career would look like,” adds Smith-Palliser, who accepted an offer from Adobe in 2020 and looks forward to growing with the company.

Dream job

TJ Rhodes, now a hardware research scientist/engineer at Adobe Research, was ecstatic when he got a GEM fellowship and Adobe match. “I thought, ‘This changes everything. You’re talking about paying me to go to graduate school!’ At the time, I wasn’t seriously considering that,” he says.

“Once GEM happened, I saw there’s a whole world of opportunity out there. Somebody noticed my aptitude and potential, and decided to invest in me. I said, ‘I’m not going to waste it.’”

Rhodes completed two Adobe internships, his second with Adobe Research—which then offered him a full-time role as the company’s first hardware researcher. It was a job that Rhodes saw as “dripping with opportunity.”

He was right: He’s had the chance to create brand-new technologies, share his work at leading conferences, and start building his own team. “Having my dream job as my first job—that wouldn’t have happened without GEM,” says Rhodes.

Applications are open until November 13. Learn more about GEM fellowships and the application process.

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