Starting from Scratch

Sue Allen (BS ’71) took her first computer science class her sophomore year at BYU, and she was instantly hooked. The novel technology was exciting and full of possibility. Allen remembers, “Everyone was brand new [to computers], and we were all starting from scratch.” It was so new, in fact, that when she tried to declare her major as computer science, she was told that BYU didn’t even have the major approved yet! When Allen graduated in 1971, she, along with 27 others, graduated in BYU’s first computer science class—and one of just two women in her class.

After graduation, Allen worked for a few years before devoting herself to motherhood. Allen found opportunities where she could hone her tech skills—including volunteering at her children’s public schools. When her youngest son informed her that “it [was] too embarrassing” to have his mom at school, Allen good-naturedly took her volunteer efforts to the nearby Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto. Only 11% of East Palo Alto residents have graduated from college (compared to 75% in the neighboring city of Palo Alto), and many of the children speak English as a second language. Undeterred, Allen embraced the challenging district with open arms. 

“[One year] I did the Technovation Challenge with a group of six sixth grade Latina girls, and they did a wonderful job. We started from scratch, literally . . . They made a Scratch app where if you’re driving more than 5 miles an hour and someone sends you a text, they receive an automatic reply that says, ‘I can’t answer, I’m driving.’ Writing the app was part of the competition, but the girls also made a marketing study, business plan, and a PowerPoint presentation. We helped them find business-style clothes to wear for the presentation, because they had either jeans and t-shirts for school, or frilly party dresses. It was really fun to watch those girls blossom and learn and watch their world open up.”

Allen also mentored and taught computer skills to students and teachers when the schools received donated laptops.  “I [taught] teachers how to do email, how to log onto a computer and how to use a mouse. Some of the teachers didn’t know how!”  With the laptops came internet, and as Allen describes, “It changed [the students’] lives. These kids had barely been out of East Palo Alto, so it turned the whole community on its head, and things changed so much. It was really amazing to watch that happen.”

In addition to serving in schools, Allen has  opened her home to community members. “We’ve had a bunch of people stay with us [in our home],” Allen says.  “My husband has kept a list. He says we’ve had about 300 people who have stayed with us for anywhere from one night to four years.” From family friends to exchange students to student interns, Allen happily opens her home and her heart. “It’s a consecration thing. We have a lot. We don’t have a huge home. . . [but] when someone needs a place, I’ll say, ‘Sure, we can [fit] one more!’ Where there’s a need, there’s a space.” With Palo Alto suffering from a huge housing shortage, there is a never-ending need for Allen’s help. 

One of Allen’s most memorable experiences in opening her home was with Steven*. A friend of Allen’s son, Steven came to live with the Allen family when he landed in a children’s shelter.  Allen saw Steven’s dire need and stepped up to help. While it normally takes weeks to become foster parents, “We jumped through all the hoops to become foster parents in about three days,” Allen describes. While Allen’s foster parent stint intended to last only for a short stay, out of necessity it morphed into a two-year relationship. Allen says, “Steven just became part of the family.”

While serving a mission in St. Petersburg, Russia, Allen started to write a new database for the church in Russia. Wherever she lands, Allen says, “I keep finding ways to use my [skills].”

—Madeline Buhman (’19)

*Name changed

Full Name: 
Sue Allen
Grad Year: 
BS 1971
College: 
Physical and Mathematical Sciences
Major: 
Computer Science
Author: 
Madeline Buhman
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