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Discovering the Code On the Path Less Taken

Discovering the Code On the Path Less Taken

Former Mercy Home resident finds validation in computer engineering career

In the fall of 2016, former Mercy Home for Boys & Girls resident and Community Care member Raffi was riding the train in Chicago with his brother, listening to music on his phone through a YouTube app. He wanted to share the music with his brother, but didn’t want to disturb other passengers by playing music out loud on the train. 

“I thought, there’s got to be a way to sync this music up with my brother’s phone, so he could listen at the same time,” Raffi said. 

Never being one to accept things as is, especially if they can be improved upon, Raffi started mapping out a solution. At the time, he was a freshman studying computer science and software engineering at DePaul University. He showed promise as a brilliant and elegant coder, and was well equipped with the technical skills to follow through on his ideas.  

But Raffi’s life was entering into a tailspin. For months, a great tide of anxiety had been swelling and resurfacing old struggles. As his grades slipped, he skidded into academic probation. That winter, after dropping out of DePaul and going off his meds, a tsunami of depression devastated family relationships and culminated in a suicide attempt.  

Yet throughout all this turbulence, the wellspring of Raffi’s ever-flowing intellect continued to quench his computer-engineering pursuits. Drawing inspiration from opportunities and coping skills he gained at Mercy Home, Raffi emerged from the darkness in a wide-open place of light and clarity. Here, he found the space to finally create Watch Party, a YouTube app extension where playback can be synchronized across multiple user devices…including his brother’s. 

With newfound confidence, Raffi felt empowered to step out on his own, now that he felt more in control of his mental health. Despite taking flak from family and classmates over dropping out of DePaul, Raffi made a bold move and started freelancing as a developer.  

After he released Watch Party to Apple’s App Store in 2018, it caught the attention of an impressed Google recruiter, who contacted him about joining the juggernaut tech company as a developer. Google’s two-year courtship recently came to fruition when Raffi accepted an offer as a software development engineer, officially making him a ‘Noogler’ – Google’s affectionate term for new hires.  

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His ship had come in. 

“After being called a quitter when I left DePaul; after having my extended family worry about me and ask me how long it would be until I knew I had to return to college, the thing I felt most when I got the good news was validation,” Raffi said. “I also felt excited, because I knew this would make my career. I knew that I would be working among the very best engineers.”                                                            

***

Raffi grew up with his mom, a high school teacher, and his older brother on Chicago’s northwest side. His parents divorced before he was born. His father, who holds a PhD in math, is a professor in South Carolina. 

Life at home was stressful, due to the constant fighting between Raffi and his brother. Playful bickering often escalated into real fights and was a deep source of tension within the household. 

Much of that tension stemmed from Raffi never feeling like he fit in. He always felt like he was different, which affected how he saw himself, his neighborhood, and his family. Very often, things just didn’t make sense.  

“I recently got diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I think that pretty accurately describes how I feel I’m different and how I felt that I was different,” Raffi said. “A major theme for my life before Mercy Home was that I was very disagreeable. If something didn’t make sense to me, I wasn’t going to go along with it. Just because some authority figure – like a teacher or parent – told me to do it, I wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t think made sense.”

I recently got diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I think that pretty accurately describes how I feel I’m different and how I felt that I was different.

This got him into a lot of trouble at home and at school. He verbally sparred with teachers about inane rules and outright refused to do homework.

“I’ve always loved learning, but I didn’t want to do homework, partially because I just didn’t need it. I learned in class and did very well on tests,” Raffi said. “Eventually, I got diagnosed with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] at Mercy Home.” 

Navigating adolescence and his teen years was difficult, Raffi says, because he just wasn’t interested in the things that young people his age were interested in, like sports and gossip.     

“In the same way that other people got excited about whatever basketball game was going to happen, I got excited when my dad talked to me about how parallel lines can actually intersect,” he said. “If you do the math in non-Euclidean geometry, then parallel lines can intersect. That’s so cool! I would have never thought that!” 

Despite his intellectual acumen for grasping such sophisticated concepts, Raffi’s then-undiagnosed mental health issues manifested in angry outbursts over not understanding why he had to do certain things. This anger fueled much of his sadness. 

“High school was hard because of my depression,” he said. “I was very stressed out for the majority of school. I would argue a lot. Sometimes I would get really mean.” 

When friction between Raffi and his brother reached a crescendo, his aunt recommended Mercy Home. After his mother did further research, Raffi was excited to move in. 

“I just knew that my life at home was very stressful. I needed something different,” he said. “My plan was to go to Mercy Home, stay until I was 18, go to college, start my career, and just basically never go back home. I was really full of anger.”

My plan was to go to Mercy Home, stay until I was 18, go to college, start my career, and just basically never go back home. I was really full of anger.

When Raffi moved in to Mercy Home, he enjoyed the transition…but not for long. 

“I liked the structure, which is actually pretty common for people on the spectrum. We tend to like rules,” he said. “But then it got old after a few months and I started to question the rules at Mercy Home. I always thought if I see something that shouldn’t be a rule, I should point it out and talk about it.” 

While Raffi’s defiance led to many disagreements with staff, Mercy Home’s coworkers also did something radical: they listened. Not only did they view his perspectives as constructive criticism, they ultimately realized that Raffi was correct in some cases and modified rules on his behalf. 

“I remember seeing this diagram of Mercy Home values and strategies,” Raffi recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘We could improve the way that we follow those in this home,’ and so I wrote an essay on how my program wasn’t following those values and strategies, and how we could do better. Apparently, my ‘manifesto,’ as some called it, made it pretty high up.” 

One of Mercy Home’s core beliefs is allowing our young people the space and freedom to express their opinions and find their voice. Not only does this help them take ownership of their identity, it gives them a seat at the table and a stake in the operation and organization of our Home. It gives them agency. 

“I have a really good memory of [Vice President of Youth Programs] Tom Gilardi,” Raffi said. “I was in Mercy Home’s lobby one day and he came up to me and just sat down. He looked at me and asked me directly, ‘How can I do my job better?’ I just thought that was so cool – and still do – that somebody in such a high position at Mercy Home took the time to listen to the ideas of one of the youth that lives there.” 

But Gilardi is just one of many Mercy Home coworkers to whom lending an ear turned out to be a profound keystone in Raffi’s network of therapeutic care. Kari Sikich, Raffi’s former therapist, now the Director of Admissions and Clinical Development, remains near and dear to his heart. 

“Kari is one of maybe two or three therapists that I’ve had who have really made a huge impact on my life,” Raffi said. “The reason that she worked so well is because she didn’t try to convince me of anything really. She just listened to me. Just by listening, she let me find and fix faulty – or useful – beliefs that I had. Her office was somewhere where I felt safe and not judged. I really felt like she actually wanted to understand what I was saying. It made a huge difference.” 

By showing Raffi productive ways to harness his perspectives, addressing and diagnosing his mental health issues, and providing an empathetic space where he felt comfortable sharing his struggles, Mercy Home paved the way for Raffi’s next steps in education and real-world opportunities.  

Our Home helped him enroll at Saint Ignatius College Prep, one of the most prestigious high schools in Chicago. Raffi says he enjoyed the academic challenge and “a few cool teachers” he met, but his anxiety and depression continued to hound him.  

Despite his ongoing struggles, it was at Saint Ignatius where Raffi got his first taste of the thing that would forever change his life. 

“The summer before my junior year at Ignatius, I signed up for a Java class – my first programming class,” he said. “I was just so curious about computers. To me, they were a magical box and I had no idea how they worked. But I was really interested to find out how and try to make them do stuff.” 

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Raffi recalls taking part in a free, online intro-to-programming class offered by Stanford University. One assignment totally consumed him. The task was to write code for a robot, have it move around a grid, and place a marker on every other spot to make the grid look like a checkerboard. 

“I ended up staying up all night until 6:00 a.m.,” Raffi said. “I just remember finally solving it – that feeling of working on something really hard and getting it. I was so hooked from the beginning.” 

Looking back on his interests growing up, Raffi’s love for coding was an inevitable discovery. 

“I always liked math and creating things. I liked expressing myself through music and poetry. For me, code is a way of expressing and creating something. That’s one of my favorite things about coding,” he said. “It’s really cool to have a vision of something and then you make it. Then it’s something you can actually touch.” 

But Raffi also credits his love and success for coding to something more – an innate sense that’s hardwired in him to always seek improvement.  

“I think I have this characteristic of trying to train myself to get better at a skill – trying to always do more and not settle,” he said. “This goes back to Ignatius.” 

Raffi is referring to The Magis Program he was a part of at Saint Ignatius, which strives to provide comprehensive academic, social, and cultural support for high school students from under-represented backgrounds. ‘Magis’ is a Latin word that means ‘more’ or ‘greater.’ 

“It’s the idea of don’t just get by, try to do more,” said Raffi. “That’s something I believe and try to live by. I think that’s important for any career.” 

As Raffi leaned in to Saint Ignatius’s ideals of ‘magis,’ he buckled down and graduated high school in 2015. In doing so, thanks to an opportunity made possible by a Mercy Home donor, Raffi seized the chance to participate in a Mobile Makers Academy that helped springboard him into a coding career. 

Described as a developer boot camp, the two-month program not only taught Raffi how to write apps for Apple’s mobile operating system, it gave him faith in his abilities as a developer.  

“One of the instructors there told me that I was an elite programmer – in the top 10%. Hearing that gave me confidence later on when I needed it,” Raffi said. “When I decided that I wasn’t going back to college, a lot of my aunts and uncles didn’t approve. Knowing that there was an instructor in the industry who told me that I was good at what I do really gave me confidence to follow my intuition.” 

But before Raffi followed his intuition, he tried following the traditional route and the expectations of others by going to college at DePaul. Even though he enmeshed himself in the Computer Science Society and participated in a computer hackathon, life on campus never felt right.  

Seasonal depression fed into the spring of his freshmen year and came to a head that winter. Doctors suggested a new medication regimen that involved dropping one prescription cold turkey, which only exacerbated problems. Raffi was grateful to be attending DePaul on a Community Care scholarship through Mercy Home, but ultimately felt he needed to concentrate on his mental health. 

After withdrawing from classes, he moved back to his mother’s house. Off his meds in a less-than-ideal environment, Raffi attempted suicide and was hospitalized. That’s when his aunt and uncle who live outside of Seattle reached out. Raffi accepted their invitation to come stay with them for a while. The move offered him a change of scenery and a chance to reset and reevaluate his life in a more sympathetic environment. 

“My aunt and uncle were much more tolerant and patient with me. They really helped a lot. I found more mental space out there,” Raffi said. “My dad has depression, too. He and I have a great relationship and talk all the time. He understands and was also very compassionate about my depression.” 

Among the fresh coastal air of the Pacific Northwest, Raffi capitalized on the open-minded space to finally develop his Watch Party app extension. During this time, he also earned an Udacity scholarship from Google to learn how to make Android apps as he geared up to start freelancing.  

But these career strides didn’t happen in a vacuum. They came about because Raffi was finally living in a place where open and honest conversations about depression and mental health were always kept on the table. 

“If you just brush depression under the rug, you’re still going to have all those symptoms. They’re still going to come about in your life, but now, instead of having a biological understanding, now you probably are going to blame either yourself or the world,” Raffi said. “If you’re not dealing with depression in a healthy way, generally speaking, people either blame themselves or bad luck.”

If you’re not dealing with depression in a healthy way, generally speaking, people either blame themselves or bad luck.

In self-reflection that defies the conventional wisdom for someone his age, Raffi, now 23, echoes the commitment of Mercy Home’s partnership with The Kennedy Forum, an organization that aims to combat the stigma of mental illness that too often prevents victims from seeking help. 

“I think it’s really important to talk about depression and treat it just like any other illness,” he said. “I think that was huge for me – realizing that symptoms of depression are not who I am. They don’t define me. They’re not part of my identity. It’s a challenge. It’s the cards I’ve been dealt. I like to say that it’s not my fault but it is my responsibility. I did nothing to get depression but I have it, and I am responsible for how I deal with it.” 

Not only does Raffi credit Mercy Home with helping him manage his mental health, he goes a step further. 

“Without Mercy Home, I probably wouldn’t have a job right now. I may not even be alive right now if it wasn’t for Mercy Home,” he said. “I really think they changed the trajectory of my life. Without Mercy Home, I would not have learned how to deal with my emotions in a healthy way. Mercy Home showed me what home life can be.” 

Seismic shifts likes these are nothing short of monumental in the lives of young people in need. Mercy Home’s round-the-clock network of therapeutic care and resources open so many doors for our boys and girls. Our generous donors make that all possible, thanks to their unyielding support. In the palm of their helpful hands, they hold a key that unlocks a world of possibility for young people like Raffi. 

“What Mercy Home donors are doing is amazing. They make these huge changes in the course of people’s lives possible,” he said. “If someone is looking to donate to an organization, your money is going to be very effectively used at Mercy Home. They really know what they’re doing.”

What Mercy Home donors are doing is amazing. They make these huge changes in the course of people’s lives possible.

For now, Raffi is exhilarated to work alongside the best computer engineers in the world at Google, but he doesn’t plan on resting on his laurels forever. 

“My end goal is not to be an employee. I want to start my own thing at some point,” he said. “My plan is to have a career as a software developer and build up a good resume to fall back on, then try to start my own business.” 

For starters, he feels there are unmet needs in the education sector for young people like him who took the path less taken. 

“I think there’s a market out there for people who don’t want to go the traditional route of going to school for four years and then trying to get a job with that degree,” Raffi said. “I see some kind of solution for that. I would probably start with just having a program for learning how to code.” 

Due to the ongoing pandemic, for the time being Raffi is working remotely in Irving, Texas – his home for the past two years where he’s worked as an app developer. But once Google reopens its offices, Raffi will relocate to California and begin a new era by following his path all the way to Silicon Valley. 

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