Building a Community of PIT Student Leaders: Q&A with Stanford's Constanza Hasselmann and Nik Marda

Blog Post
April 12, 2021

This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.

Whether students hail from technical backgrounds and are interested in conversations around society and ethics, or come from the humanities and want to apply their thinking to the world of technology, finding a place to have conversations about technology’s role in society can be a challenge. While many PIT-UN members are focused on building these spaces and bringing students together under the public interest tech umbrella, students themselves are taking the lead as well.

Stanford University student Constanza Hasselmann founded the school's PIT Lab in 2019 after struggling to find a home for just such discussions. She and fellow Stanford senior Nik Marda are now co-presidents, leading the PIT Lab's efforts to build a community around public interest technology at the school. That work encompasses discussions, coursework, hands-on projects, research, and advocacy.

On April 30 and May 1, the Stanford PIT Lab will host a two-day PIT Student Leaders Conference. PIT UNiverse managing editor Austin Adams caught up with Hasselmann and Marda to learn more about the conference and the role of student leaders in shaping the field of public interest technology. Read our conversation below.

Q: Who should attend the PIT Student Leaders Conference, and what can attendees expect?

Marda: The PIT Student Leaders Conference is for existing and prospective student leaders in PIT. Over the course of the two-day event, students will hear perspectives from leaders in PIT, share experiences building PIT communities, and build long-lasting connections with each other.

Q: What do you hope they learn from the experience?

Marda: In this conference, students will grapple with the potential and pitfalls of public interest technology. Students should leave the conference with a better understanding of the big challenges in PIT, and know that they have a community to support them as they continue to explore PIT.

Q: Why is it important to build a community of students dedicated to PIT?

Hasselmann: Causes find their strength in communities. The cause of ensuring technology is built for and by everyone, especially those who have historically not been included, is furthered by caring, dedicated individuals. In short, people drive the work and organizations are simply the vehicle. Student interest in PIT often derives from the desire to contribute to something greater than oneself. Building a community that inspires, learns from, and leans on each other is critical to the challenging yet essential work of PIT.

Marda: It's hard to explore a nascent field like PIT by yourself. With a community of like-minded peers, it's easier to continue doing work in PIT.

Q: What role can students play in being champions for PIT at their own schools?

Hasselmann: Being a vocal, unapologetic advocate of public interest technology at your school brings exposure to the field. Student organizing around PIT sends a values and priority signal to the institution’s administration and broader community. With every 'What is PIT?' comes subsequent understanding of our collective mission, critical to the project of recognizing the breadth of work that falls under the term. The use of 'our' here is important because PIT is not just one organization or school - it’s a collection of individuals from interdisciplinary and diverse backgrounds who care about our shared technological future.

Marda: Student leaders in PIT can create communities for other students to find like-minded peers and explore difficult questions about technology's role in society. In many cases, students can also vote with their feet, choosing to pursue careers in PIT and encouraging others to do the same.

Q: How can colleges and universities encourage more students to pursue a PIT career?

Marda: Our survey of over 900 randomly selected Stanford undergraduates showed that ‘building skills’ and ‘career growth’ were the top two factors for students pursuing tech in the private sector. Assuming these trends hold elsewhere, colleges should facilitate more mentorship and networking around PIT. In turn, this would help students realize how they can improve their skills and careers through a PIT role.

Q: What challenges do you see facing PIT students and the field as a whole, and how can schools work together to solve them?

Marda: PIT students often struggle to find community, especially at universities where there isn’t a critical mass of students working in PIT. Additionally, the field as a whole has not unified on a clear definition of PIT, which makes it harder to ensure PIT isn’t used as ‘ethics washing’ for non-PIT organizations. To help address these concerns, schools could collaborate to create intercollegiate communities and definitions for PIT.

Q: Where do you hope PIT will be as a field in 5 years?

Marda: In five years, I hope there will be many communities that aren't scared to ask hard questions about technology's role in society. I also hope there will be more institutional, financial, and social support for students who choose to pursue careers in PIT, especially in the public sector.