- My mom and dad were around me as I slowly opened the Stanford email. As soon as I clicked on it, confetti flew and the email said, 'Congratulations!'
It was a hot summer day in California. We had been walking for 20 minutes, and I was exhausted and sweaty, but finally, we were there. It was love at first sight. The Stanford Terman Engineering Library looked like a perfect sanctuary with the gorgeous red water feature outside. Stanford was a dream; something that didn’t quite feel achievable to my 13-year-old self. Seeing the library helped me make up my mind that I was going to try the best I could to make it to Stanford.
I never had to look far for an inspirational woman leader. My grandmother, with who I spent the first two years of my life, was a really strong woman. Although this time was short, I’ve heard stories about her all my life. She was the sole wage earner of her family in the 1950s, a time where women were not allowed to leave the house that often. She held three jobs and would start the day at 4:30 am and come back around 8:00 pm. She moved up the ladder to become one of the top managers in her company. Additionally, other than her working life, she was always compassionate to the people around her. She helped people find jobs, financially assisted people who were hurting, and supported the education of young children. When people were transitioning between jobs, she would even extend her home for them to come to stay and feel comforted. She was a strong woman role model to me in terms of her balanced living, where she focused on her career, family, and service to the community and remains an example I strive to emulate.
My parents also played incredibly important roles in encouraging my growth and fostering my passions. Both my parents come from families that value music and encouraged them to foster their musical skills from a very young age. When I turned 7, I enrolled in a piano class and I have been learning it ever since. I am currently pursuing a high school diploma in the piano which requires you to memorize 10 pieces, play over 48 scales, and do many technical tests. Additionally, I was part of my school’s choir for 5 years and was selected on a state level to be part of Michigan’s SSA (soprano, second soprano, alto) middle school honors choir, along with 100 other girls from around the state. I was invited to Carnegie Hall to perform on the piano which was a wonderful experience. To use my passion and serve my community, I played piano in a senior living home and I hope to continue spreading the joy that I feel when I play piano or sing.
Girl Who Codes
During this time, I was slowly developing another passion, one which would shape the rest of my life. My journey to Stanford began at 10 years old when I would watch my dad code for hours and hours, mesmerized by all the moving pieces. It was like watching a puzzle being solved. Each snippet of code fit in with the next to create a cohesive algorithm that solved a problem. My dad would often say that it is important to learn the 2 Cs: Coding and Constitution. Regardless of the career path I was to choose in the future, I knew that coding would be an extremely crucial life skill.
The summer before 8th grade, I enrolled in a course offered by MITx taught by John Guttag. I spent weeks listening to Guttag solidified my love of coding and inspired me to begin coding for longer hours. I knew that coding I was passionate enough to pursue and wanted to use to solve real-world problems. While visiting for dinner one day, Seeing me coding away on my laptop for a significant portion of the day, my uncle invited me to join him during a day of work and visit the lab he worked at IBM’s Watson lab for Artificial Intelligence. I was thrilled to be able to see the real-world applications of the code I was writing. We walked into an open room and the tech before my eyes shocked me. I got to interact with pepper, a robot created by IBM which retains eye contact with you as you move around a room and talk to it. Additionally, I even got to program one of the robots they had in this room to do a dance to the beat of a specific type of music. This experience fueled my passion in the field of artificial intelligence and encouraged me to continue learning about computer science.
In 8th grade, recognized by my teachers as a strong STEM-oriented academic leader, I was chosen to go on a field trip with 30 other girls to learn more about women in STEM. We traveled to an automotive firm that worked on programming self-driving cars and car technology in general. It was incredibly motivating to hear about the experiences and journeys of the women that worked there. One woman told us how when she was growing up, money was tight. In high school, she had to work a job to make sure that her family could stay afloat. She was also interested in pursuing further education in engineering but she knew that her family needed her support financially.
As a compromise, she decided to go to a local technological college called Lawrence Tech and continued working a job to support her family. Being part of the 20% of women that worked for this company, she felt extremely privileged that she was able to be a changemaker in her community and pursue something without many women. The second part of the field trip involved visiting an architecture firm. It was amazing to meet a woman who described fostering her love of architecture from a very young age. She would spend days designing and drawing homes on paper while she was in high school and was exhilarated by all the technology that was available to her once she joined an architecture firm. Seeing someone else who was interested in a career path from a very young age connected with me on a deeper level and I looked forward to the day that I would be able to pursue a career in STEM.
During the summer break of eighth grade, my uncle, aunt, and cousins from India visited us in Michigan. We attended an open-air theater play about Thomas Edison at the nearby Henry Ford museum about his journey to invent the lasting light bulb. We were so amazed by the play that we decided to visit Edison’s lab. While there, we began talking to the museum staff to learn more about Edison’s story. The volunteer tour guide, Dave Green, taught us about the fantastic things that Edison and his team had accomplished. I listened fascinated as Green told us about Edison’s famously ambitious goal of creating a small invention every two weeks and a big one every six months.
My cousins and I talked to Green for close to an hour about entrepreneurship and what we could do, as middle schoolers to foster that in ourselves. He told us that we should keep an invention journal where we would write down any thoughts that we had about something that we could use for a different purpose than it used for, or any idea that we had, no matter how impossible it seemed at the time. He told us it was also important to pay attention to things people needed help with and practice recognizing problems or needs that weren’t being addressed.
While I transitioned from middle school to high school, I was able to experience this basic tenet of entrepreneurship firsthand. I personally felt a lot of environmental changes: teachers were increasingly hands-off and encouraged us to explore more things on our own. There was also an increase in pressure and competition amongst students. As one of the many student-athletes in high school, my mental health was challenged when I joined my school’s swim team. Our swim team practiced for three hours a day, six days a week. The physical strain that this entailed often also led to mental strain. After practice, I would hear crying in the showers, witness and have panic attacks, and experienced migraines, which seemed par for the course on the swim team. I noticed people around me starting to use unhealthy methods of coping with the additional stress, and in my second year of swimming, as we all struggled with the snowballing pressures student-athletes face, one of my classmates overdosed.
During this time, I sought to balance all the things happening in my life and began my meditation journey under the guidance of Kamlesh Patel. Kamlesh uncle, as I called him, was an inspirational figure to me because of the way he centered his life around spirituality and giving back to the community. As a young entrepreneur, he launched a successful business, and I look up to him as both an entrepreneurial and spiritual role model. Relaxation, Heartfulness Meditation, and journaling helped me center myself every day and cultivate a daily practice of reflection. I felt less stressed, was sleeping better, and felt more focused. With all the benefits I was experiencing, I believed that many of my peers would gain from these stress management techniques. After asking a couple of my friends what format would be the most useful, I concluded that an app would be the most accessible and easy to use for high schoolers. I channeled my passion for learning and programming into completing an intense 6-month nano degree program offered through Udacity and learned how to make iOS applications.
But I realized that mental health was but one of the many problems that were going unnoticed in my community. I co-founded Code for Nonprofit to provide technological solutions to other nonprofits while giving high school students real-world STEM experience. Six months of work culminated in the development of HeartBot, an app that provides stress management techniques to high schoolers. This app grew to be used by 50 schools around the country.
When I was 4 years old, my mom started her Ph.D. program, and within a year after that, my dad started his MBA with Kellogg Management School. My parents worked together in managing their work, studying for their school, and balancing the needs of not only me but also my younger sisters who were 2 and 1 years old respectively. Their incredible work ethic and perseverance motivated me to work harder and set lofty goals. My mom’s passion for research specifically inspired me to look into the science and statistics behind what I do. To learn more about the efficacy of the app, I launched my first research project with my mom’s guidance and support. With about 90 participants, I measured the stress levels and emotional wellness before and after a 3-week intervention centered around the app.
After doing an analysis of the data, we noticed that there was a statistically significant decrease in the stress levels of the intervention group and an increase in emotional wellness (specifically connectedness, optimism, and perseverance). This research is currently under publication. After the study, I also collected personal anecdotes from the participants, which gave me insight into the benefits my app provided to its users. One participant mentioned that his quality of sleep improved after using the app, which helped him improve his academic performance. This helped me feel connected with the people I was helping and made the work I was doing more personal.
Concurrently, I was also working on a second wellness app with Dr. James R. Doty, a Stanford professor of neurosurgery and New York Times bestselling author of “Into the magic shop.” In 2017, my parents organized a mental wellness conference in California and brought my sisters and me along. This conference was the first time I had heard Dr. Doty’s story and it really touched me — I saw people crying after his talk, and after both feeling and seeing the impact of his story, I wanted to learn more about his journey and the tools that he used in his adolescence to cope with daily stressors. So I read his book Into the Magic Shop and was thoroughly impressed by the goals he accomplished.
I wrote to him about the impact that the book had on me and that I had started my own meditation journey. Through our mutual friend, Naren Kini, Dr. Doty sent me compassion beads and an Alphabet of the Heart poster based on a mnemonic he described in his book. I was super excited by receiving this and began to wonder how many more hearts Dr. Doty’s story could touch and how we would be able to bring the idea of compassionate living to a high school audience. After months of brainstorming, I came up with the idea of building an app that offered an easy way to practice all of Dr. Doty’s tools. I worked with Dr. Doty, creating the code as a friend designed the interface, and together, we launched the Alphabet of the Heart (AOTH) app with the vision to spread love, compassion, and a little bit of magic in the world, one letter at a time.
I was excited by the impact both of my wellness apps had on teens in and out of my direct school community. But wanting to get more involved directly with my school community, I co-founded the Student Mental Health Committee with support from our principal, students, and teachers. For the past two years, I’ve organized a week dedicated to mental wellness called UMatter week, where we had different activities and themes associated with every day. We associated positive characteristics with each day of the week, including compassion, happiness, and gratitude. We also brought in therapy dogs during our school lunch and provided free hot cocoa to students in our school cafeteria.
The culmination of UMatter week was our school speak-out, where we provided a platform for students and staff to come and voice their opinions and personal experiences related to mental wellness and fighting the stigma. The week’s featured event was having Dr. James R. Doty, share his personal experiences in the form of a nationwide webinar on compassion. It was during this event, of about 300 participants from 3 different high schools, that we officially released the Alphabet of the Heart, a wellness app that I developed under his mentorship.
With the work that I did at school, I was able to represent my school as a speaker at statewide conferences. These conferences had audiences of 800+ people and I was given the opportunity to talk about all the projects I had been working on. Hosted by the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MAASP) in Lansing, Michigan, this event was sold out to about 550 students and staff. People from all around the state of Michigan came to hear different people speak about the different mental health initiatives at each respective school.
This conference was targeted towards student-athletes and coaches and was an event that consisted of about 770 people. It was conducted by Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) with 2 days of breakout sessions and keynote speakers. I met with students who talked about their own difficulties in their school district. One student came up to me after our presentation and talked about how her school had recently lost someone to suicide. Listening to our techniques to handle stress and the initiatives we organized, she was excited to take back multiple ideas to her own student mental health group.
The Heartfulness Way
In efforts to reach high schoolers around the country, I started conducting various webinars and starting initiatives talking about programs I was a part of in my school to help promote compassion and mental wellness. One such webinar was showcased by South Brunswick High School, NJ in its yearly mental wellness fair. We got a lot of positive feedback and some high schoolers mentioned that they learned some ideas of what they could take back to their own high school. Additionally, I was a part of a webinar hosted by Heartfulness Institute where I was able to talk about the different efforts that we organized at my high school.
That summer, I began reading a book called “the Heartfulness Way” by Kamlesh Patel, also known as Daaji, which detailed the importance of meditation. As a result, I began practicing this heart-based meditation every day over the summer, which led to various benefits, including improved focus and concentration and enhanced self-compassion. Since the pandemic began, over 74% of adults report one or more adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms due to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Statista). Additionally, a mental health and substance abuse hotline has received more than a 1000% increase in text messages than the previous month.
The pandemic has become a time of stress for people worldwide and shows how increasingly important it is to foster positive mental health habits and learn as much as you can to keep yourself educated. To examine the effects of this practice on loneliness levels, I conducted a 4-week study for high school students across the United States. Participants used an e-portfolio filled with daily activities. The study showed that loneliness levels in the high school students who went through the intervention significantly decreased while the control group’s loneliness stayed the same. The paper is under publication.
Quarantine days seemed to blur together, making me numb to the time that was passing by. Amidst all the panic that the pandemic was wrecking on the lives of numerous teenagers around the country, trying to preserve my sanity, I called my best friends, one from Texas and one from New Jersey every single day. We would often end up talking about the most random things, from childhood memories to how grateful we were to be able to stay home during the quarantine. As many people were trying to stay away from the virus, the healthcare workers had to face it head-on, with their lives at stake every day they were helping other people overcome it. It was incredibly inspirational to see how motivated and resilient they were in the face of something that was terrifying and was taking a lot of lives.
To aid our community during the pandemic, a group of high schoolers from Novi partnered with a nonprofit, Novi Community Coalition, which aims to promote healthy communities. Together, we launched the ‘Share a Smile’ initiative, which was a card and care basket initiative to give back and appreciate health care workers. Our first care basket round was at Providence Ascension hospital in Novi. We delivered about 35 baskets to the nurse stations. The volunteer director told us that “The staff LOVED the baskets!!! We took them to each nursing station on the inpatient units, ER, Short Stay, and Surgery. Thank you SO much for all the time, creativity, and effort that went into the entire project. Your team’s compassion was truly felt by our nurses and clinicians!!!!”
It was a truly heartwarming experience and we were inspired to keep moving with our initiative and touch the hearts of other health care workers around the county. To help maintain this initiative, we started a fundraiser aiming to collect $1,000 to do another delivery of baskets. To our surprise, we raised about $5,750 to make care baskets for our community. We continued delivering to urgent care and hospitals around the area, including Novi PrimeCare. We decided to expand our efforts to homeless shelters and women’s shelters around our area. SMHC has grown to be 7 times its size since its founding and I am proud of the people we have impacted.
As a result of the increased levels of stress and anxiety in young people, I was a part of co-founding a platform to help spread the word about mental health coping techniques. A group of 50 passionate high school and college students led by me, hosted a student wellness and leadership (SWL) summit which aims to educate people worldwide about mental health, leadership, and help promote compassionate living. This conference covered topics from imposter syndrome, mental health 101, and navigating mental health challenges during adolescence The SWL conference was well received and we got a lot of positive feedback from the attendees including that one participant “learned so many things in those two days and it will probably stick with me for the rest of my life.” This experience taught me that there are an unlimited amount of people that can be reached through the message of mental wellness and that it is really important to serve your community to make the world a better place. We look forward to reaching a million young adults next year for our conference.
Less than a month after the SWL conference, I received a notification that a Stanford decision email came in. I was nervous as well as eager to learn about their decision. My mom and dad were around me as I slowly opened the email. As soon as I clicked on it, confetti flew and the email said, ‘Congratulations!’ This was a full-circle moment to me as I reflected back on my visit to Stanford 3 years ago, and I was finally happy to be able to call it my home for the next 4 years. After hearing about the news of my acceptance, I called many family members to express my appreciation for their support and encouragement over the past couple of years. Through my journey of coding and mental wellness, I’ve learned a lot about service and research and I am excited to continue learning at Stanford.
Laya Iyer is a 12th-grade social entrepreneur on her way to Stanford University in the Fall.