Nikki Phan ’21 Puts Liberal Arts Education to Use in Tech

Nikki Phan ’21While the humanities and tech may seem like opposite career paths, Nikki Phan ’21 is using her liberal arts degree in surprising ways. After graduating from Saint Mary’s last spring with a major in Anthropology and a minor in East Asian Studies, Phan is pursuing her master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction at DePaul University in Chicago.

Phan initially came to Saint Mary’s as a Business Administration major, and credits Economics Professor Andras Margitay-Becht and Anthropology Professor Dana Herrera for motivating her to major in something she was enthusiastic about.

“Dr. Herrera encouraged me to see different avenues where you can apply anthropology practically,” said Phan. “I really appreciated that when we would sit down and have conversations about anthropologists in the workplace, like outside of academia, all of her non-negotiables were really similar to mine. I wanted to do something that helps people, and something that is practical. She understood that I wanted to be in a situation where I could use my skills to advocate for folks.”

“A popular definition of human-computer interaction is studying the way humans and computers interface,” described Phan. “It’s also known as UI/UX, which stands for user interface and user experience. The two main components that go into it are human-centered research and visual design….For my program specifically, I’m focused on interactions with digital platforms, like websites or mobile applications.”

Phan described how her Anthropology courses led her to discover the tech field: “I felt like my interests were separated, and I wasn’t sure how to combine the two. The main things I was interested in were social science and visual design. I had no idea that UI/UX even existed until my second semester of senior year. And luckily, I was taking an Applied Anthropology course with Professor Dana Herrera….It felt like it just fell into my lap,” said Phan. 

As someone deeply invested in social justice, Phan hopes to use her liberal arts knowledge to make technology more accessible for everyone. “I wasn’t super interested in going down the tech route, but I was interested in it more because I know it’s everywhere. There’s so much of it, but not everyone can use it. I have this strong urge to practice social justice in whatever I do, so I thought that was a great way to take whatever I learned from different social justice areas in my life and apply that. So, it felt kind of perfect.” Phan also serves as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellow, and conducts research with different faculty to meet diversity initiatives at DePaul.

Looking back on her undergraduate experience at Saint Mary’s, Phan said her Anthropology courses prepared her to understand humans when studying technology. “A really big thing in HCI and UI/UX is empathy, and that comes into play when you’re creating a product and trying to figure out your audience and how they’ll use it, and what might motivate them to do this or that,” said Phan. “[In anthropology], we know people experience the world differently and we accept all experiences in equal value; you can’t value one over the other.” 

Phan also worked at Saint Mary’s Intercultural Center (IC) for two years, an experience she said prepared her for the research she currently does in grad school. “A lot of the work that we did was about creating experiences, whether that was in the form of writing a lesson plan and making sure it was accessible for folks, or designing a newsletter and making sure it was readable and could get the necessary information across. We were constantly thinking about what it would be like for the participants and trying out different things. I’m very grateful for the IC… Director Legacy Lee and former Assistant Director Sudha Shrestha, and the rest of the great folks [at the IC] really helped me practice tangible and practical ways to employ empathy and social justice work into anything you do.”

Phan encouraged students to take advantage of the close-knit community at Saint Mary’s and build connections to explore their passions. “When you go to college, it’s really easy to think that what you study now is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, but I would say keep your eyes and ears open, and trust that there is a place for you and your interests.”