Schwarzman Scholar Chayla Cherry

“I had to learn not to compare myself and the things I had going on with my Spelman sisters. I had to start telling myself early on that comparison is the thief of joy. I can't judge myself for being on one part of my journey when my sister is on another part of hers.”

We sat down with Chayla Cherry, Spelman ‘22, earlier this year before she embarked on her international fellowship to China. In this interview, she shares her path to becoming a Schwarzman Scholar, her family legacy of attending HBCUs, and how she finds balance in the midst of it all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jamie: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Chayla! Tell me more about yourself and your background.
Chayla: Thank you for having me! I am Chayla Cherry, a recent graduate of Spelman College. I was a Computer Science major and Asian Studies minor. I'm from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I'm the oldest daughter, and I have a little brother coming to Morehouse next year. We both continued the legacy of attending school in the AUC. It started with my aunt; she was a class of 1922 at Spelman. Many of my family members on my dad's side attended Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, and Clark. My mom went to Spelman too, so it was pretty obvious where I might end up.
Jamie: You said 1922? All right! That was 100 years ago!
Chayla: Right! I'm grateful to continue what she started and carry on her legacy.
Jamie: It looks like you're interested in China and Chinese culture. Where does that interest come from?
Chayla: It started on a whim. At Spelman, there is a language requirement to graduate. Growing up in South Florida, I took Spanish in middle and high school and tested into Spanish 202 at Spelman. After taking that, I realized I wanted to try something different. I was interested in Japanese culture in middle school because I watched anime and tried to teach myself Japanese. That didn't work out, and the Japanese classes didn't fit my Spelman schedule. I decided I'd try Chinese to see if I would like it, and I ended up liking it a lot! The language makes a lot of sense to me. It's a logical kind of puzzle, putting together language. I think that's what made it so fun for me. When I started learning about the culture and the people, it all just came together.
Jamie: How did you learn more about the people? Learning a language in a classroom is one thing, but how did you learn about actual Chinese culture?
Chayla: I took Intro to Asian Studies at Spelman, which opened many doors for me. I took East Asian World Politics and participated in a program with George Washington University, the East Asia Professional Development Program. I used the resources available to me at Spelman. As a computer science major, I know that our relationship with China is important in cybersecurity and business. I want to go into business but also technology in a broader sense. So I think learning Chinese was a good idea overall.
Jamie: The technology interest fits in very nicely with learning Chinese, exploring Chinese culture, and even gaining an understanding of Chinese politics. How did you get interested in technology and computer science? Where do you see all of these interests taking you one day?
Chayla: The summer after fifth grade, my dad put me in a robotics camp. I think that's where I got the idea of being an engineer. I started taking computer classes in middle and high school, and I remember enjoying them. When I got to Spelman, I wanted to be a biomedical engineer and a computer scientist. My plan was to major in Computer Science and then I would do biomedical engineering after. However, the pre-engineering classes were at the same time as the computer science classes, and I realized that I would have to pick one or the other. I liked computer stuff more than the engineering stuff, so I stuck with it from there.
Jamie: I bet the introduction to robotics at a young age was pretty influential. Can you talk more about choosing a path in computer science that was not software engineering?
Chayla: I think part of the challenge came from not coming into Spelman with previous programming experience. My learning curve was a little bit steeper. When I took computer classes, they were more focused on information technology, not languages like Python and C++. I had some classmates who came in knowing exactly what to do during the technical interviews. When I did go to an interview for a big tech company, I did great on the behavioral part. But when it came to the technical interview, it was a little bit of a struggle. So I think I had to find my niche in a different way. So instead of going to a big tech company, I interned at the Department of Energy. I still learned a lot from that experience, even though I wasn't in Silicon Valley.
Jamie: I'd say that's still pretty good! I want to go back to your interest in Chinese and Chinese culture. You've earned the Schwarzman Scholarship, which is phenomenal! First of all, congratulations! I'd love to hear about how you found out about it, what the process was like, and what's in store.
Chayla: My connection to the Schwarzman Scholarship came from George Washington University's East Asia Professional Development Program I did. The program is typically a three-day event. They fly you up to DC, and you do a bunch of site visits. Since we were still virtual from the pandemic, my program was three months long, so we had many different sessions over those months. One of our program coordinators presented Schwarzman because he knew a girl from Howard who had gotten it. He showed us pictures from her experience, and I thought, "This seems kind of interesting." However, I was still thinking about attending grad school or getting a job after graduation. Then we returned to Spelman in the fall of 2021, and one of my friends asked if I would apply for Schwarzman. She told me she would do it and wanted me to do it with her. So we worked on it together, and I was the only one who submitted an application. I'm really glad that she asked me to apply with her because I interviewed, got it, and now I'm going to China!
Jamie: How long are you going to be there? Will you be getting a degree through the fellowship?
Chayla: I'll be there for a year and earn a Masters in Global Affairs.
Jamie: Do you know what your work will focus on? Or is that still to be determined?
Chayla: Everybody takes the same classes, but they let you customize your Capstone and final project. Mine will probably be related to cybersecurity.
Jamie: That's awesome. Well, we've talked about Computer Science, Chinese, your fellowship, and so many of the great things you've done. What does Chayla like to do for fun? How do you like to spend your downtime?
Chayla: Recently, it's been a lot of catching up on my sleep. Spelman felt like four years of me running around and doing all kinds of things. So I'm excited to just rest for a minute. I love music! I used to be really into playing music. I used to play clarinet, but I don't do that much anymore. I also enjoy photography, and I'm also trying to get back into reading. I enjoy journaling and DIY projects too. I even have earrings that I've made.
Jamie: Can you talk about striking that balance between working, sleeping, doing the things you enjoy, and resting? I feel like that's a real challenge for all of us, especially students like you that have had a good chunk of their college time influenced by the pandemic. I'd love to hear your reflections and thoughts on that experience.
Chayla: Well, I had to learn the lesson the hard way. I was in the middle of a meeting, standing for a long time under hot lights. I hadn't eaten or drunk any water that day, and I fainted. So after that, I knew I had to figure something out because I can't take care of my business if I'm not taking care of myself. I hate that it had to come to that, but that made me a lot more self-aware of what I was doing, what I was taking into my body, and encouraging the people around me to do the same thing. If my body says we need to eat something, then we're going to find something to eat. If I'm tired, I will just have to close my laptop for the night and work on it the next day.
Jamie: That's such an important lesson. I'm definitely guilty of the same thing at times. Can you tell me some of the lowlights of your Spelman experience?
Chayla: One that sticks out to me that I had to deal with really early on was trying to find myself. In high school, I was the smart Black girl that played sports and was in the marching band. When I got to Spelman, I would say to myself, "oh, she was valedictorian," or "she was SGA president." And so I had to ask myself, where do I fit in? I had to learn not to compare myself and the things I had going on with my Spelman sisters. I had to start telling myself early on that comparison is the thief of joy. I can't judge myself for being on one part of my journey when my sister is on another part of hers.
Jamie: That's so true; comparison is the thief of joy. I'd love to hear you talk more about how Spelman nurtured and prepared you for the world beyond campus and the gates. Is there a particular story or something symbolic of what that feeling is?
Chayla: I feel like my experiences at Spelman taught me that if I can get through those challenges, I can get through anything. I learned how to balance a lot of things at the same time and how to work with a lot of different kinds of people. Even though Spelman is a school for Black women, Black women come from all sorts of different backgrounds. I think there are a lot of lessons I would have learned a lot later on in life, and I'm grateful that I learned them while at Spelman.
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