YouthSpark Star

Abril Vela

Future computer engineer inspires other young women to explore technology and science.

Tech Camp Transforms Student into Mentor

Abril Vela has had a keen interest in math and science since she was a child. When she was in 7th and 8th grade, she participated in competitive events in her school's rocketry program. Now 17, Abril aspires to be a computer engineer.

But that wasn't always her dream.


"It wasn't something I thought I could be good at, and I really didn't know what it was, but I tried it anyway and realized that I have a passion and an ability to do this sort of thing," says Abril, a senior at Northside College Prep high school in Chicago.

Abril started to see technology as a viable career choice in her freshman year at Northside. Around the same time, she began inspiring other girls to give tech a chance—a personal quest that keeps her busy to this day.

So what inspires Abril? Technology-oriented programs like DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, have played a major role, as have educators and tech professionals who've mentored her over the years. Don Yanek, a computer science teacher at Northside, first met Abril when she was a freshman in his introductory class.

"I've become aware of the inequality with not enough young women being involved in computer science," says Yanek. "I'm always looking out in my classroom for young women who I think have a particular talent, and I want to encourage that talent."


Seventeen-year-old Abril hails from Chicago and is an alumna of DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark program.

Seventeen-year-old Abril hails from Chicago and is an alumna of DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark program.

According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), women who work in science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM) earn about 33 percent more than their counterparts in other fields, and have a smaller wage gap relative to men.

But there's still plenty of room for improvement. While women hold nearly 50 percent of all jobs in the US economy, they fill fewer than 25 percent of STEM jobs. And in computing-related professions, the percentage of female employees has actually declined over the past decade, according to the OSTP.

From the start, Abril was a standout in Yanek's in class. "She was a very good problem solver," he recalls. "I wanted to encourage her to consider computer science, or pursue something in the sciences." When Yanek received an email from a Microsoft consultant regarding an upcoming DigiGirlz event at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry, he encouraged Abril to attend.

"She really liked it, and I think that's one of the things that sparked her to realize that computer science is not just about writing programs, not just about coding," says Yanek.


Abril's work as a tech evangelist has inspired many others to apply their talents to computers and science.

Abril's work as a tech evangelist has inspired many others to apply their talents to computers and science.

Technology impacts our lives in many ways, Yanek points out. It empowers researchers to develop new medicines, create clean water projects for developing countries, and build the next generation of robots—one of Abril's favorite tech fields.

Abril met another future mentor, Mary Monroy-Spampinato, the Microsoft Operations and Community Manager for the Midwest District, at her first DigiGirlz event.

"Mary and I spoke for a while, and she was interested in what I was doing at my school," Abril recalls. "She invited me to reach out to her."

Monroy-Spampinato was immediately impressed with Abril's enthusiasm and straightforward manner. "It was during the lunch break and there was one spot left at the table. I grabbed it and happened to introduce myself to her," she says of Abril, who wasted little time in asking when Microsoft planned to pay a visit to her school.

"'When is Microsoft going to come join us?'" Monroy-Spampinato recalls Abril asking. "I said, 'Let me give you my business card, and we'll come and join you.'"


Highly motivated and deeply passionate about getting more young women involved in STEM, Abril interned in the IT department of President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.

Highly motivated and deeply passionate about getting more young women involved in STEM, Abril interned in the IT department of President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.

Abril's efforts as a tech evangelist have inspired many young women to apply their talents to computers and science. In addition to her work with DigiGirlz, Abril has led two all-girls robotics teams and helped create computer science curriculums for middle and elementary school students.

"She's a person with so much energy and excitement who's able to get other people interested in what she's talking about," says Yanek.

Abril also manages Chicago Girls in Computing, an organization that strives to provide a "friendly environment for high school girls in the city of Chicago who are interested or wish to become more involved with technology," according to the group's Facebook page.

Her efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, Abril was awarded the 2013 National Center for Woman and Information Technology (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing Award, which honors young women in high school for their computing-related achievements and interests. And last year NCWIT chose Abril as its 2012 Illinois Affiliate Award Winner.


Want to read another DigiGirlz story? Check out Lizzie Yoo and her DigiGirlz experience on the Microsoft Citizenship blog.

Want to read another DigiGirlz story? Check out Lizzie Yoo and her DigiGirlz experience on the Microsoft Citizenship blog.

When asked why girls are often reluctant to pursue careers in technology and science, Abril offers this perspective: "I personally believe that society has built up the belief that males are the ones who go into these fields. People don't feel like it could be any other way, even though it should and can be."

By breaking this barrier, Abril hopes to make science and technology a little less of an all-boys club. "Then we can start increasing the number of women in technology," she adds.

Now a senior, Abril is thinking about her post high-school plans. "I definitely want to stay on the path of computer science and technology," she says. "I aspire to be a computer engineer. I love building things and being hands-on."


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