Humans of Symsys: Antonio Aguilar


“This is becoming the theme of my blog post, but I’d advise students be intentional about who they are modeling, about developing relationships with the right models and mentors, and about asking oneself when it is best to go in a wholly new direction.”

Antonio graduated in 2018 and is a current Advising Fellow for the major, so he helps prospective and current SymSys students navigate their journey at Stanford. His office hours for Fall 2018 are Tuesday 9:30am-1:20pm in 460-040A.

What drew you to SymSys?

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a civil engineer like my grandfather. He built roads and bridges for the Costa Rican government for years. However, I got really into philosophy in high school. I started a weekly reading group which introduced me to the joy of discussing ideas between friends. I wondered then if I really should be pursuing a day job that was so separate from the intellectual life I wanted.

Before coming to Admit Weekend, I came across SLE and SymSys. I thought this Stanford combination sounded like the ideal liberal arts education for the 21st century, the perfect blend between technical disciplines and the human questions that really interested me. I looked through the SymSys core and realized that I would take all of those classes even if I didn’t need to fulfill the requirements of a major. SLE even knocked down Philosophical Foundations 1!

As my Admit Weekend came to a close, we ProFros got to hear from Srinija Srinivasan, one of Yahoo’s first employees and a SymSys alum. I remember being so impressed by her eloquence and the way she spoke about her own education that I practically locked down my decision right then and there.

Why did you pick your current concentration? Why did you decide to become an AF?

Many times I have made significant decision in my life, it has been because of role models. That is, I’ve seen something in someone else that has made me say “I want to be a bit like that”—Ms Srinivasan, for example.

So the answers to these two questions are actually the same. I attended the SymSys Student-Alumni-Faculty reunion during homecoming of my freshman year. (I highly recommend these, they are really fun!) There I talked to a junior called Cristian, who was an AF in the Artificial Intelligence concentration. The long conversation I had with him, sophomore Gerardo and alum Aman dispelled any doubts I might have had about SymSys and made me look further into AI for myself.

But just as important as that intellectual component was looking at someone who was joyful, Latin American, involved, excited about his work, and setting my nav roughly in that direction. I declared AI with Cristian, figuring I could change my direction later. It has taken more time, more models (people like Jure Leskovec in the CS department) and a 13th quarter to really commit to that path, but I am really happy for it. Getting involved in the SymSys community and working for it as an AF has been a phenomenal part of the process which was kickstarted that afternoon.

What’s your favorite SymSys-related class that you’ve taken?

It’s hard to choose! The list of non-SymSys-related classes I’ve taken is quite a bit smaller. The answer to that question is likely Phil 81: Philosophy and Literature. I think that class brings up essential questions about what makes a well lived life in relationship to art. In the realm of SymSys, I’ve yet to fully replicate the levels of flow and deep work I experienced while coding for CS106A or working through problem sets for Stats 116. The AI classes that I’m taking this quarter are giving me that feeling again, which makes me enormously excited.

What's one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

I came to Stanford as an international student from Costa Rica. Especially during my first years here, I looked at others around me to model how to choose my classes, much to work on them, how to spend my spare time. I see now that I didn’t always make the right choices for my particular circumstances and qualities and aspirations. This is becoming the theme of my blog post, but I’d advise students be intentional about who they are modeling, about developing relationships with the right models and mentors, and about asking oneself when it is best to go in a wholly new direction.

What (loosely) SymSys-related topic are you excited about right now?

Other than the AI stuff I’m studying and working on, I’m really excited that more people are becoming aware that technology often does not help us live the kind of lives that we truly want to live. I’m interested in better business models and design frameworks that help realign our technology with our humanity. I’m also invested in minimalism as a practical philosophy that seeks to bring our focus to what is truly important to us and brings us value.

What other groups or activities are you involved with at Stanford?

I was very involved in the Sigma Phi Epsilon community, especially with the project to house a part of our members in a multi-organization, multi-gender space. I have also been an active member of the Catholic Community at Stanford. Things change as a commuter, but I’m particularly excited to help kickstart the Thomistic Institute, a new offshoot of the Catholic Community that focuses on our intellectual tradition and the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.