Alumni Award Winner Olivia Bene On Finding Her Passion Through Her NAF Academy

Olivia Bene
August 4, 2022

My name is Olivia Bene, and I am deeply honored to be recognized as a 2022 NAF Next Alumni Award recipient. 

NAF has made such a pivotal impact on my life. I remember the exact moment I was introduced to the organization. 

Let’s go back to when I was in eighth grade at Hunking Middle School in Haverhill, Massachusetts. It was a sticky day in May, and I was sitting at the end of one of those long wooden lunch tables, escaping the summer heat, in a very cold cafeteria. 

A teacher, Mrs. Kelley, spoke on the raised “stage” about the inaugural class of the NAF Academy of Information Technology at Haverhill High School. There were classes about 3D printing, programming, and robotics – topics that I was always interested in, but never knew how I could get involved in, until that moment. 

Growing up, I was called a dork and a nerd frequently. Some people might be embarrassed by those names, but, to let you in on a little secret, I loved it! Being called those names told me that other people saw my passion for technology. Sitting in that lunchroom on that summer day in May, I knew my passion had a place with NAF. 

Someone who understood my passion was Cliff Ashbrook, my mentor. Cliff was one of the lead NAF teachers, and he saw my eyes light up whenever I learned about new and innovative technology. He encouraged me to keep learning and exploring which inspired me to get more involved in extracurricular activities, like the AV Club and the robotics team he coached.  

Being a part of NAF has even led me to participating in hackathons – competitions where teams are only allowed 24 hours to create a technical solution, to give back to my community. During one hackathon, my team was challenged with finding a solution for local truancy. In just one day, we created an app that made it possible for parents to know where their kids were through a digital check-in system. We spent the whole night working on it, and that lack of sleep paid off! We came in third place, beating out not only college students but even software engineers who did this work for a living. Talk about feeling proud!

Fast forward, and my NAF experience has allowed me to apply the skills I was learning in the classroom to the real world and was a stepping stone for everything I would encounter in college. 

For example, this past semester, I was required to take a course on SQL, a programming language used to communicate with and manage databases. Fortunately, I had exposure to SQL through a database class I took with NAF when I was a Junior in high school as part of my academy track. 

The strong foundation NAF provided me showed me I belong. As I reach the midpoint of my summer internship with the Red Sox as a systems developer, I know that I earned a seat at the table and I will confidently take that seat. I have gotten to contribute new components and features to the software that the team uses to connect the coaches, scouts, and medical staff across the globe. I have repaired and prepped the software that organizes the mass amounts of data the team is using as we speak to prepare for the 2022 draft. 

I’m deeply grateful to NAF for providing me with a launching pad into a competitive field. Especially amid the feelings of imposter syndrome that come with being a woman in STEM. NAF has played a huge part in giving me the confidence to follow my passion and pursue my professional goals.

Thanks to NAF, I am confident I earned every opportunity on my own merit. I am happy to say I have been programming since 2015, and now I’m in my final year studying computer science at Boston University, my dream school with my dream internship. The things I learned from NAF in high school are relevant everyday to me. 

I want to thank my dad, who has always pushed me to try everything at least once, explore my interests, and has supported me for it all. This has instilled that “just do it” and “keep going” attitude in me.

I also want to thank my mentor, Cliff Ashbrook, who is the reason I became so involved in technology high school and encouraged me to go after many technical opportunities and helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Now, I aim to help others find their purpose and passion. I have spent summers teaching middle school students about programming, in hopes of sparking the passion for STEM that I had at a young age. I’m humbled that I got to inspire more young people to bravely embark on these careers, particularly young women. 

I look back at my eighth-grade self, discovering a place for my passion in a cold cafeteria. Standing here as a senior in college about to start my career, that moment in time seems so long ago. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities NAF provided me — technical skills like 3D printing and robotics and career skills like interview prep and mentorship.

And yes, I am still that same “dorky” kid with a passion for programming that I was almost 10  years ago. I am pursuing a career in technology, never letting myself get deterred, despite the frustration, imposter syndrome, lack of representation of women in STEM, and any personal obstacles. 

And I will leave you with something that has stuck with me for years from the late animator, Monty Oum. His mantra was, “Keep moving forward.” Seems simple, right? But those three words have pushed me through some of the darkest and most difficult times. He’s right, keep moving forward. Don’t give up. If I stopped, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today. 

I hope that you continue to do what brings you joy regardless of where you are in life. Look for what sparks your passion and puts the light in your eyes. Keep trying, keep moving forward. Although you might not realize it at the moment, eventually, you’ll see how far you’ve come when you take a look around.

Thank you. 

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Olivia Bene is a 2022 Alumni Award winner. She graduated from Haverhill High School, AOIT and is a current student at Boston University.