Hard work and a little help lead to “magical unicorn of jobs”

A Microsoft scholarship gave Marrissa Hellesen a brighter outlook on the future in an uncertain time

Marrissa Hellesen loved coding, but nothing about college came easily for her. It felt like she was always surrounded by computer science students who were better than she was — students who didn’t drop out of school in the eighth grade, as she had, or have to struggle to emerge from academic probation.

As she faced her senior year, she’d maxed out what she could get in federal student loans and didn’t qualify for private ones. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to finish school at all. Then Microsoft awarded her a scholarship, giving her the boost she needed in more ways than one.

“It was the first time I felt like I was really worthy of a big company’s attention,” Hellesen says. “I wasn’t a very confident student, so knowing that I got this scholarship — that Microsoft thought I was worth it — really helped. It felt incredible.”

Hellesen earned her computer science degree from the University of Illinois in June. In July, she started what she calls “the magical unicorn of jobs” at Microsoft: She’s a software development engineer for Microsoft Word.

Microsoft has been providing scholarships for more than a decade. It gave tuition assistance to nearly 50 students last year, and an expanded scholarship program could mean financial help for nearly 100 this year, says Sarah Bruch, a recruiter who manages the program.

Applications are being accepted through January 31, 2016. Current college students, including past years’ recipients who are still completing their degrees, are encouraged to apply.

Eligibility is based on a number of criteria that include merit, financial need and a demonstrated passion for technology; a large percentage of the scholarships are awarded to female and underrepresented minority students as part of Microsoft’s continuing efforts to promote diversity in the industry.

The idea is to encourage students to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) programs, and “provide the opportunity that they might not have otherwise,” Bruch says. “It can take some of the burden off attending university and give students an opportunity to focus on their studies.”

The scholarships are also a potential avenue for a job at Microsoft; students seeking scholarships apply for internships at the same time.

“It’s a great way to identify top students and get them in the door, and to provide them with an opportunity to get real work experience,” Bruch says, “so it’s a win for both of us.”

Hellesen says the scholarship helped lead to where she is now: working in a challenging, satisfying job doing something meaningful in a company that supports her.

“It’s really important to me that I can make a small impact on a lot of people’s lives, and what I do gives me that opportunity,” she says. “Microsoft Office has so many users. If it can help people be a little more efficient, that’s important to me.”

For Hellesen, it’s been a long, rugged road.  She was enrolled in a gifted program through 8th grade, but she says she didn’t feel challenged or even engaged. She and her parents decided she’d be home-schooled, but with both parents working full-time, it didn’t work out.

At 15, she got her GED — something many people spend months studying for — by simply taking the test. She found employment at a pizza chain and other places, often working full-time hours in two jobs at a time, and was making good money for a teenager. For a while, that was good enough.

But at 18, she was working at a call center with middle-aged colleagues who had families and were struggling to make ends meet. She suddenly realized that was the future she could face. It wasn’t one she wanted.

Hellesen went to community college and met some inspiring people, including an engineering professor who made her believe she could succeed in a STEM program. She even took on several leadership roles, including starting a LGBT student alliance and becoming student government president.

The challenges she faced throughout college were numerous. She had to take various math classes just to get caught up to a college level. In her first semester after transferring to the University of Illinois, she threw herself into an onerous mix of courses that included three physics classes and ended up with Ds.

On academic probation, she knew her major at the time, engineering physics, wasn’t right for her. She decided to go into computer science, but the dean said her grades in two introductory classes weren’t good enough to get into the highly competitive program.

Hellesen agreed to retake them to get As. She worked hard, earning an A in one and a B+ in the other, and the dean relented. “He let me in. I think he knew I was never going away unless he did,” she recalls.

“I loved coding. I found it to be such a creative outlet for me,” she says. “I just knew that I wanted to code as my job.”

As she worked toward a computer science degree, she devoted much of her free time to something else she cared deeply about: Helping girls develop their interest in STEM studies. She volunteered as a math tutor, showed girls how to program at a coding camp and taught computer science to middle-schoolers.

“Seeing them light up and understand that they could build and create something with their keyboard —it was just amazing,” she says. “I loved it.”

She took on the job of corporate director for HackIllinois, the university’s student-run hackathon, which is how she got to know Microsoft university recruiter Andrew Gottlieb. He told her about Microsoft’s scholarship program and encouraged her to apply.

Gottlieb was impressed by Hellesen’s drive to “fight for the education she wanted in the face of what can be daunting obstacles for a young student,” he says.

“For her to push through that and connect with professors, get the support she needs and not give up spoke to her determination as a computer science student willing to take on an immense challenge,” he says. “She was doing all this amazing stuff, and she didn’t know yet how to tell her own story.”

Hellesen says she was embarrassed about her academic record, especially dropping out of school, and struggled with how much to reveal on her scholarship application. She ended up sharing her past, and she explained that her Cherokee roots and the fact that only one person in her family had ever gotten a degree played important roles in her resolve.

She says it was vital for her to finish college, in part because she feels too few Native Americans do.

She applied for what seemed like “a billion scholarships,” and was able to complete her degree with help from Microsoft and another scholarship she got through the university. She applied for a program manager job at Microsoft, didn’t get it, and tried for the software engineer job she has now.

That, she says, couldn’t have worked out better. She now helps create new features for Word and feels like she gets to “make a big impact” while learning along the way.

“My team is very caring,” she says. “I find the company to be very interested in my development and my growth, and so it’s a place where I feel at home.”