Student Interview: How You Can Get Involved in Your Community

Updated: September 2, 2020

Today, we’re talking to McClain Thiel who co-founded SOIS: Support Our International Students with Sumana Kaluvai and Mary Jessie Celestin. SOIS was originally created to help international students find in-person classes so they can stay in the US throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.


McClain Thiel, SOIS Co-Founder

Chegg: Hi McClain! It’s so great to meet you. Can you tell us a little about your background?

McClain: Absolutely. I’m a student majoring in data science at UC Berkeley, and I’ll be graduating in 2021.


C: What gave you the idea to create SOIS?

M: While I came up with the name and built the site, Sumana is behind the original concept. 

In early June, it was announced that international students wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the US if they weren’t taking in-person classes. 

I first got the idea for SOIS from an Instagram page called “Community Equity.” It linked to a Google Doc, created by my fellow SOIS founder Sumana, which acted as a sign-up sheet where international students in need could enter their names and the classes they needed to switch in order to stay in the US. At the same time, domestic students could sign up to donate their in-person spots to international students. But Google Docs isn’t designed to handle that type of flow, and it crashed quickly. 

I reached out to Sumana and asked if she’d be interested in working together to make a website. Mary also helped organize the structure and layout of the site.


C: What has the reception been like?

M: On my end, the reception has been pretty much universally positive. I shared it as a Hackathon project at my internship, and it got a few hundred shares on LinkedIn. But the main driver of popularity was the original Instagram post. That post got over a million views, and it’s where the site got the most attention. 


Sumana Kaluvai, SOIS Co-Founder

C: Now that this administration has rescinded its original plan, how has SOIS’ focus changed?

M: We’ve tried to capitalize on the traction we’ve gained to turn the website into a major resource for international students. First of all, while the new order allows current international students to stay in the US, that’s not the case for new students, so we’re maintaining all the current resources for switching classes for them. 

While we still have sections for signing up for classes, we also have course registration resources, visa information, email templates, and more. 


C: You’re a data scientist. Has your work in that area impacted your work as an activist?

M: Being a data scientist has given me the skills to be really useful as an activist. I learned to program, and then I started building apps and databases using my skill set. I do a lot of machine learning, too, and there’s a big research field about fairness in machine learning right now, much of which has come to light in the past 4-5 months. My work allows me to view the world in a scientific way, which is very helpful in activism.


C: What are your goals for SOIS in the future?

M: It’s hard to say. Generally, we want to build an international community that’s helpful for everyone.

Specifically, Sumana is a member of a Facebook group for UCLA international students where they can ask questions and network directly. That’s the direction the site is heading in. We want to open it up to all schools, and be less about social media and more about providing vetted resources. 


Mary Jessie Celestin, SOIS Co-Founder

C: Do you have any other causes you plan to get involved with next?

M: I hop on these things as I see them. I recently made an app that blurs people’s faces when they’re in the background of photos. A friend of mine knew someone who appeared in the background of a photo from a recent protest, and they were facing repercussions at work. I wanted to protect the identity of people who are doing good things.  

Another project I haven’t started yet is taking advantage of neural net vulnerabilities to protect people from discrimination. Many police use facial recognition software, and it’s not effective and negatively impacts minorities due to AI bias. But you can make stickers for anything in the field of vision of a facial recognition system. So, I want to take advantage of that vulnerability.


C: What’s your advice for other students looking to effect change and get involved with causes they care about?

M: My main thing is “Do something.” A lot of people don’t reach out because they are shy or don’t feel that they’re the most qualified. Remember that you have very little to lose by reaching out or DMing someone. The worst that happens is someone says no; usually, you just never hear back. So you need to just go for it. Personally, I’m not the most qualified person, but you can’t wait to be the best to start doing something. You can make a difference now.