Meet Kaylen

Finding What She Loves

Kaylen Sanders (Linguistics)

“After coming into college with absolutely no idea what I wanted to pursue, finding linguistics was like a revelation,” says Kaylen Sanders, a junior majoring in linguistics with minors in computer science and creative writing. “The most rewarding experience I’ve had at Pitt has basically been finding what I love and getting to engage in it every day. I’m really grateful [that] I have the freedom to explore a diversity of interests and, ultimately, am able to invest in the ones that are captivating and meaningful to me.”

Sanders, a native of Pembroke Pines, Fla., recalls how challenging it was as a freshman to try to decide what career she should pursue without knowing what field of study really spoke to her.

“I was thinking about studying pharmacy,” Sanders says, “and it took me two terms of chemistry and biology courses before I realized that I wanted nothing to do with the natural sciences. I was kind of lost and put a lot of pressure on myself to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It was when I started exploring linguistics that I remembered what it was like to genuinely love a subject, be excited about what I was learning, and even want to read my textbook for fun.”

In exploring her passion for linguistics, Sanders uncovered another passion as well—and discovered a career path that allows her to meld the two. “I’ve been passionate about language for years, but Pitt is where I actually got a chance to delve deeper. Beyond simply studying languages in the interest of writing and speaking, I started learning subjects like morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantics, which pull data from a wide range of languages to try to find patterns and develop theories. … I’ve also been mesmerized by computers since I discovered the existence of the Internet, so I thought the field [of language technology] sounded like a way to unite two of my seemingly unrelated interests.”

Sanders is spending her time at Pitt preparing for a career in language technology, which uses computer programs to analyze and model human language, improving the ability of humans to interface with machines by building systems that can comprehend and produce human speech. While taking courses focused on language technology, she has taken advantage of unique careerbuilding opportunities outside the classroom as well. Earlier this year, Sanders met with a group of professionals who work in speech recognition for Amazon through the Pitt Python Linguistics Group, a group on campus focused on linguistics and computer programming. In spring 2015, she participated in She Innovates!, Pitt’s first all-female hackathon, developing an app to combat street harassment while being mentored by women working in the technology sector. “I like that I’m getting a chance to combine both my linguistic and programming skills and to learn about real-world applications of language engineering,” Sanders says.

Truly, Sanders has found many ways to explore her interests at Pitt. She serves as a research assistant to Associate Professor Scott Kiesling. She is the business manager for the undergraduate linguistics club, Yinzling. She is an associate member of the coed community service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega; a University Honors College student ambassador; an editorial intern at Pitt Magazine; and a writer and copy editor for The Original Magazine, Pitt’s biannual arts and culture magazine. She also has taught English as a second language conversation courses for adults through Pitt’s English Language Institute.

Sanders encourages new Pitt students to do the same but notes that it’s important to know your limits: “I would say to try everything that catches your eye, and once you’ve had an array of experiences, boil down your life to the essentials—the clubs that really make you happy, the leadership positions that fulfill you, the research that perfectly aligns with your interests, and so on. It’s a useful method for getting and staying involved while making sure that you truly care about what you’re doing.”