The Snapchat release engineer first encountered it as a 6-year-old, when her parents left Guilin, China, without her, to attend graduate school in upstate New York. It was three long years before the family was reunited.
They settled in New Orleans, but disruption dogged them. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina plunged Hartshorn’s neighborhood nine feet underwater. The family lost everything and was separated once again. Hartshorn, then 15, was sent to a boarding school in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
These disruptions left scars, but they also made Hartshorn resilient and adaptive. “The hurricane taught me to not be attached to worldly possessions,” she says. In New Orleans, Hartshorn had collected things: stamps, rocks, bottles. “They all got swept away.” What remained, she realized, were intangibles such as relationships.
Little wonder, then, that Hartshorn is so attached to Caltech. From the moment she arrived for Prefrosh Weekend, she knew. “Caltech felt like home,” she says. “I thought: ‘This is where I will make friends for the rest of my life.’”
That knowledge explains why Hartshorn stays so active in alumni leadership roles. Currently, she serves on the board of directors of the Caltech Alumni Association and her class reunion committee. She volunteers her time and contributes generously to fundraising appeals.
“My Caltech connections are very strong,” she says. “Few things in life allow you to have that level of community.”
A Sense of Belonging
As a Caltech student, Hartshorn got involved with many student organizations: the Caltech Y, the longboarding and outdoor adventure clubs, and the Fluid Dynamics a cappella group. She became treasurer, then president, of Caltech’s IEEE student chapter.
Campus jobs reinforced her sense of belonging. As an admissions tour guide, Hartshorn delighted in opportunities to share Caltech lore with newcomers. Library sitter, house waiter, event receptionist, chemistry teaching assistant: Each role fostered new connections.
Hartshorn liked how “unapologetically nerdy” everyone was. “They very openly loved science,” she says. “They were not ashamed of it.”
She enjoyed interacting with faculty as she waited tables at the Athenaeum. Nobel laureates would read her name badge, notice her electrical engineering major, and strike up science-inflected conversations. Some jotted encouraging notes on their cashier receipts.
“Caltech transformed me,” she says, “and continues to transform me.”
Perhaps her early experiences with disruption, coupled with Caltech’s supportive community, emboldened Hartshorn, late in her senior year, to deviate from her original path. She had always intended to earn a doctoral degree. As commencement approached, she was weighing the choice between the solar cell programs at Stanford and the University of Michigan.
Then she stopped to chat with recruiters at a campus job fair. “It really opened my eyes,” she recalls. Suddenly Intel, Raytheon, and Microsoft were flying her out for interviews. Hartshorn declined NSF and IEEE scholarships to take a position with the software giant. Later she moved to Cupertino, California, and worked for a now-acquired startup called Stack Labs. Today, she is a release engineer with the Santa Monica-based social media company Snap Inc., tasked with managing the customer experience of all new Snapchat iOS and Android releases. It is a high-stakes job, as these releases touch nearly 200 million active users.
Hartshorn relishes the dynamic pace of the technology sector. “For me, I made the right decision,” she says. “I really like working in industry, and I’m good at it.”
When she is not monitoring Snapchat’s health dashboards, Hartshorn takes business courses through a mobile-first MBA program. Last July, she married Caltech alumnus Matthew Hartshorn (BS ’07), a Google software engineer. The two met at a Lloyd House dinner in Hartshorn’s freshman year.
Adding Value to the World
Asked if she feels an obligation to support Caltech, Hartshorn replies: “Obligation isn’t the right word. I want to do it. I find it rewarding, and I want to give back. I want to share what I have felt, to expand that positive feeling, to add value to the community and to the world.”
Hartshorn is mindful that she benefited from scholarships and financial aid through her college years. Three times she received Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships: the Saul and Joan Cogen Memorial SURF, the Edward W. Hughes SURF, and the Jack and Edith Roberts SURF.
“It is important to reflect and see how I have benefited from the philanthropy of others,” she says. “In order to add value to the world, I need to pay back what Caltech has given me, with interest. Tenfold. I hope that in my lifetime I am able to give back far more than what I have received.”