Human Interest

1999

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In storytelling, there is an unwritten contract between storyteller and listener that ensures that said listener will emerge from the tale with a feeling of complete closure and fulfillment due to the comprehensive conclusion. I am about to violate that contract. Allow me to introduce you to my story, or more specifically: my story so far. I am a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying electrical engineering with interests in robotics, electric transportation, and high-bandwidth information transfers— but right now, none of that matters. Right now, I am a storyteller who does not know the resolution to her own story—hence, the contract violation. I cannot provide a conclusion, so in its place, I will offer a beginning. Welcome to the beginning of time as I know it: 1999.

I was born in the spring of 1999, and I consider the timing of my birth to be a great symbol of what my life would become. Firstly, the year 1999 was riddled with conspiracy (trust me, I was there). Since my earliest memories, my parents have affectionately sung the renowned Prince song “1999”, as a personal tribute to my birth year. However, the content of the song is hardly affectionate at all. It is morbid and paranoid, while grasping at threads of a twisted sort of positivity—rationalizing an end to the world with the proposal that everyone should go out with a party rather than a cry. Then there was this little film released about a month before my birth. You may have seen it a time or twenty, it’s called “The Matrix”, and it was equally as paranoid as the Prince song; however, rather than believing that everyone was soon to die, it proposed that no one was ever even truly alive. Lastly—just as it always does—life imitated art, and there was a true crisis anticipated at the turn of the millennium: the Y2K problem. This global panic promoted the belief among millions of people that a computer bug would cause international industries to collapse at exactly midnight on New Year’s Day of year 2000. The nature of the bug? Computer clocks, and their projected inability to change four digits from year 1999 to year 2000. Alas, somewhere, amongst all of this chaos and confusion, emerged Stephanie Coachman. A newborn girl who would one day learn about how everyone was supposed to die just months after her birth, and who would be assured that nonetheless, all of the fright was for nothing.

1999 was also notable because it was the very beginning of the popularization of personal computers. My father is an engineer, so he was eager to expose his children to the exciting frontier of computers and technology. I grew up with two computers in my household, both with monitors beyond a foot in depth. In my non-expert opinion, this era was special. There is no other time period comparable to the early 2000s, not before, and surely not since. I grew up with technology: computers in every household, SuperMario on Gamboy, the iconic Motorola Razor flip phone, and even Tamagotchi digital pets—but I also grew up with grass stains on my jeans, and strange nicks and scrapes from backyard explorations. When I was a child, none of my friends had their own cell phone, and no one wanted one. All of my favorite playmates could be found on any given afternoon running wild within the enclosure of our neighborhood sidewalks, playing tag or attempting to conquer the monkey bars for the one-thousandth time. I had the best of both. I had the perfect introduction to technology, but I was also a child when it was time to be a child. The children of my birth year were born into the exact instant between state changes—where matter is neither liquid, nor solid: it is instantaneously both. I often forget how starkly the composition of childhood has changed since 1999, but and when I look at my friend’s eight-year-old brother, who already has an iPhone 8 and an Instagram account with 300 followers, I can’t help but think: wasn’t that state change special, we were the last.

Among the rugged outdoor adventures and bonfires, the early 2000s became an incubator for my fascination with technology. New technology products were being launched at an unprecedented pace. In

2005, YouTube.com was launched. In 2006, the Nintento Wii hit stores. In 2007, the iPhone 3G absolutely consumed my curiosity. The innovation was rapid, and I followed with a magnetic attraction towards every new gadget. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had already decided that I was going to be an engineer. I would become an engineer not just because I was spellbound by technology, but because I have the characteristic of enjoying making new technology even more than I enjoy using it. Before I graduated the fifth grade I was already building websites for my schoolteachers and designing my own computer games in my free time. I was hooked. That is my defining trait: I have to be a creator, because the rush that I feel when creating something that just works, is a feeling that I have never been able to supersede.

I was lucky alright, to be born into a world where eight-year-old girls could log onto YouTube.com and learn about web design. Just as I was lucky to be born into a childhood that equally valued video games and games of jump rope. My beginning was defined by the chaos of time period where, for at least brief moments, everyone dabbled in both skepticism, and study about what would happen next. Whether that next event was the change of a calendar digit, or the release of the first pocket-sized computers— everyone witness to the unparalleled innovations after 1999 were lucky enough to be encapsulated with me during the exceptional instant between two distinct state changes. And to think, the whole world was supposed to end when I was only seven months old.

Stephanie Coachman is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Coachman is native to the engineer-dense metro Detroit area of southeast Michigan, but her decision to study engineering stemmed from her lifelong interests in technology and innovation, as well as her aptitudes in math and science. On campus at Penn, Coachman works with the admissions department as a peer advisor for new students, and is also involved as a chapter member of multiple student groups including the Black Wharton Undergraduate Association and the National Association of Black Engineers. Through her presence in these groups and in her courses, Coachman hopes to become a strong proponent for women and underrepresented groups in engineering and other STEM fields.

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