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An interview with Tarhata Guiamelon

2014 MHCI+D Graduate Tarhata Guiamelon talks about UX for social change projects

Tarhata Guiamelon is a graduate of the inaugural class of the UW Master of Human-Computer Interaction + Design (MHCI+D) program. She currently works as the Technology and Data Strategies Manager for Fair Work Center, a startup non-profit in which she develops technologies that empower and better conditions for low-wage workers. In this interview, Tarhata shares how the degree program allowed her to bridge her interests in technology, human behavior and positive social change and helped her build the skills and confidence to pursue lead roles in the field

Can you tell us a bit about your current job and background?

I have a bachelor’s degree in medical anthropology and global health, and I have experience working in roles across science, technology, law, education and business. I like dipping my hand in a lot of different things, so I’ve done things like research Parkinson’s disease in a lab at Harborview Medical Center, draft court documents as a legal assistant in a corporate law firm and manage operations for an e-commerce business.

I currently work in a contract position at a nonprofit called the Social Justice Fund Northwest, where I’m doing Web application development for some custom-built software. It’s a great opportunity, but I'm ready to take the next step and see what else is out there. Since I'm also volunteering to develop and teach the first technology tinkering class for Rainier Scholars, who knows what else is in store for me!

Why did you decide to enroll in the HCI+D master's program?

When most people meet me, they think I'm an engineer or something very technical because one of my hobbies is taking electronics apart and fixing things. When I was an undergrad I wasn't sure if I should go into engineering or computer science. I was good at programming, but I really care about people and about understanding how the world works, so that's where the anthropology piece comes in.

I wanted to do tech stuff, but I also wanted to work with people on efforts that drive positive social change. And then I found out about this new HCI+D program. I went to the intro session and thought, “Wow, this sounds like everything I’ve been looking for!” I love understanding and helping people, I love applied knowledge, I love technology. I knew this was the program for me.

How has your experience in the program helped you in your career?

The program really gave me confidence in my abilities. During the program, we did a lot of team-based projects and I took on a variety of roles to make sure things kept moving. I’d be the technical lead for some projects, the project manager or the strategist for others, and sometimes the designer of presentations! Because I found the confidence to do all these things during the HCI+D program, I felt like I could do Web development even without any prior experience.

Can you tell us about your capstone project?

The capstone project was around the design question of how to get more young girls interested in computer science. I’m pretty proud of that project, because we went through the whole design process – we had two great prototypes and an amazing final presentation by the end of it.

I dipped my hand into everything in that project. I was doing some research, because I have the background for it. Then I was programming and building hardware. Then I did a little bit of designing of the slides for some of the presentations. And overall, I was leading team meetings and strategizing. Ultimately, the project culminated in my realizing, wow, I can do a lot of different things!

What did the instructors bring to the program?

All the professors are crazy smart and were deeply dedicated to our success and learning in the program. The director, Linda Wagner, is one of the greatest mentors you can have. Plus, the UW is one of the top HCI+D schools in the country, so you're having all this knowledge poured into your brain from people who are considered the best in the field.

I can't even believe I was able to meet all these people who are getting awards in HCI. I know them. So if I need to learn more about a specific technology or just need to be connected with somebody in the field, I can just ask the program faculty for help, because they know me. It’s pretty cool.

What did you find most valuable about earning your master’s degree?

This program has given me a lot of confidence and made me realize that there’s a budding leader within me. Also, I feel now like it’s okay to keep learning and doing all the random things I love, because HCI+D is about holistically understanding how to design technologies and experiences that ultimately make people’s lives better. Since technology is pretty ubiquitous nowadays, it can be applied in many different arenas and for many different purposes. That's what the program taught me. All the skills and knowledge I have are valuable, and there are many ways I can apply them to positively impact our future.