Paula Sefia ’22 is Hacking with a Purpose

Paula Sefia ’22 understands the importance of mastering skills and learning with a purpose. Only one year out of Oak Knoll and as a first year Computer Science and Cognitive Psychology major in the Northeastern University Honors Program, she is not only managing a 20 credit course load, participating in five campus clubs, working two part-time jobs, practicing fencing several nights a week, attending church functions, and maintaining her social and family relationships, she just happens to be in the process of coding and launching an app that allows users to track incidents of racial bias, harm, and harassment in their college vicinity.

Sefia acquired this sense of purpose while attending Oak Knoll from grade three to 12 and advises peers to keep busy, experiment with interests early in high school and enter college with big ideas. Or as her mother likes to advise, “Keep your tentacles out and reach for all the opportunities that surround you.”

“I feel like it’s very important that people understand what it is they are interested in, or even explore what they are not interested in, so they know what to filter out. I think that a sense of personal interest is very helpful in terms of shaping your future,” Sefia notes.

Sefia and several friends at Northeastern University decided very early in their freshman year that it would be fun to enter a “hackathon.” They met religiously in the school’s Snell Library to brainstorm, discuss common interests, and understand the parameters of the Hack the Patriarchy competition — “a gathering of programmers, developers, designers and others for an intensely focused, short period of time, who are trying to build a creative solution within the constraints of a timed event.” In this case, the hackathon focused on creating innovative solutions for relevant issues facing marginalized communities around the world.

The result: a prototype for a website called “Big Sister” that Northeastern students can anonymously use to report instances of harassment, catcalling, and sexual assault on campus. Big Sister connects users to campus officers and safety resources, and creates a visualization that college women can use to navigate their area more safely. Their idea won both the People’s Choice Award from their fellow hackathon participants, and the Activist Award which goes to a team whose product most exemplifies the competition’s mission.

When asked how she maintains balance between all her curricular, extra-curricular, and social activities, Sefia nods to her Oak Knoll days: “I think I brought my Oak Knoll self to college because I was very involved there also. I feel like just having a purposeful and busy schedule is something that I need. I like putting myself out there and trying a bunch of different things and then developing my skills. My hope is that I’ll continue to do that in college and develop my passions over time.”

Sefia showed early promise as a coder while at Oak Knoll where she seized first place in her first-ever Hackathon at an area independent school. That particular competition was designed to inspire students, especially girls, to work collaboratively and improve their programming skills by building a functional product in one day. Along with two teammates, Sefia designed a fully-functional interactive story-mode game called Text Adventure.

Sefia and her new college team of coders are currently refining the Big Sister app, attending an entrepreneurial business development club to ensure the marketing and business side of the product is protected and looking for licensing opportunities with other colleges and universities. They hope to take Big Sister to even more user experiences. With her passion, energy, and ever stretching tentacles, Sefia is certainly shaping the future for herself and others.