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My Bluebonnet Journey: Serving Our Country & Building a Civic Tech Family

My name is Tilak Bhatnagar, and I'm a first-generation American & incoming US Air Force Cyber Officer. I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a Bluebonnet Fellow for the summer cohort of 2021. I had such a great time that in fact, I extended my time with Bluebonnet through fall 2021 as well! I’m sharing my story and my Bluebonnet journey in the hopes that it inspires others to join the Bluebonnet family. This past half year, I’ve had a great opportunity to not only join, but truly become part of the Bluebonnet community.


To be honest, I joined Bluebonnet by complete chance. When I said I was looking for something to do while waiting to ship out to join the military, my friend Emelin Flores, recommended that I check out Bluebonnet Data. I joined Bluebonnet thinking it would be a good opportunity for public service, but I didn’t realize that it would become more than that: it would become like a second-family.

I joined Bluebonnet thinking it would be a good opportunity for public service, but I didn’t realize that it would become more than that: it would become like a second-family.

My background: being the "first" of firsts in my family

Before I go into the details of my Bluebonnet journey, I want to share a little bit more about myself. I’m actually writing this blog from London - I’m here visiting family, before I ship out in a month and officially enter the Active Duty military. Back in May 2021, I graduated from Rutgers University with my B.S. in Computer Science. Right after I graduated, I also took my oath to defend the Constitution by commissioning as a Cyber Officer in the US Air Force.


Wearing our biggest smiles after finally completing years of military training!

I’ve been the first in my family to do a lot of things, and that’s gotten me used to trying things. Including doing anything remotely military, which feels like a whole different level of being the first to try something. In May, I took my oath to serve, but was told that due to COVID, I wouldn’t be able to ship out and enter Active Duty until early February 2022. Thankfully, I had earned a military scholarship that covered my tuition, so I graduated debt free and was able to look for meaningful opportunities to spend my time, knowing I had a full time job down the line. So, I had more than half a year to really do whatever I wanted.


That’s how I ended up at Bluebonnet - a completely chance recommendation from a friend, while discussing the emerging field of civic tech with her. I’d never heard of Bluebonnet Data until she brought it up, but once she told me more, Bluebonnet seemed to sit right at the intersection of everything I’m passionate about: problem solving, public service, and tech.

Bluebonnet seemed to sit right at the intersection of everything I’m passionate about: problem solving, public service, and tech.

Being a Bluebonnet Data Fellow for Crimson Goes Blue

I was excited when I was accepted for the summer 2021 cohort. I’d spent years studying computer science in the classroom, which felt abstract and theoretical. The Bluebonnet Data Fellowship felt like a great chance to apply some of what I’d learned in a more hands-on manner. My team and I were matched to Crimson Goes Blue (CGB), an organization of Harvard alumni looking to organize other Harvard alumni for Democratic/progressive campaigns. When I was given my first assignment, I realized much of the theory of what I learned in the classroom didn’t immediately apply - instead, I’d have to get more hands on, and be creative.


The big project CGB asked us to handle was managing information about their members, using a platform (Airtable) I’d actually never heard of until they introduced it to me. But, something the military gave me plenty of experience of is learning things on the fly. Through a lot of help and training from Bluebonnet over months, I learned the platform, gathered multiple data points on more than a thousand CGB members, and then built custom visualization dashboards to deliver key insights to CGB leadership.


By the end of my time at CGB, I was actually teaching CGB leadership about Airtable - but that confidence and competence came from hours on countless calls with different Bluebonnet members (shout out to Aedan Lombardo and Sophie Sheeline for being patient and awesome teachers!). I even started an #Airtable channel in the Bluebonnet slack to coordinate learning/teaching Airtable with my other Bluebonnet fellows tasked to CGB. I entered Crimson Goes Blue as a data volunteer, but left as a data leader.

I entered Crimson Goes Blue as a data volunteer but left as a data leader.

A call to service: of country, of civics engagement, and of new community

As Bluebonnet Fellows, it wasn’t just work and no fun - I became friends with my other Bluebonnet fellows (Kevin Tan & Vivian Vasquez), and gained close mentors. During the data fellowship, I was based in NJ, while Kevin was based in Boston, and Vivian was based in LA. Even though we were all over the country, we grew close as we spent countless hours working together over Zoom calls. Over the summer, since I made a trip up to Boston, I actually got a chance to meet up with Kevin in-person!


Two smiling young men standing in a street. The man on the left has light brown skin, black hair, and is wearing a black tshirt. The man on the right has light tan skin, black hair, and is wearing a black shirt with thin white stripes.
Meeting with Kevin for the first time in Boston, after working online together for months

The Bluebonnet fellowship was a really rewarding experience because it went beyond its promise of imparting technical skills. Yes, I picked up data management and data visualization skills, but also: picked up some friends from across the country; mentors whom I’ll keep in touch with for years to come; and most importantly, a sense of satisfaction in adding value to a growing political organization. I was able to take CGB’s member data management practices to a new level and was happy to hear from senior leadership that the live data visualization dashboards would help shape their future decision-making.


As I look forward to my time in military service, I think becoming more actively involved in our democracy (regardless of affiliation) is one of the best ways to honor the sacrifice of those who came before us; especially military service members who paid the ultimate price of their lives in order to defend our democracy, our values, and our way of life. So if you’re looking to get involved in our democracy, learn some technical skills, and potentially make some great friends along the way, I would absolutely recommend the Bluebonnet Data Fellowship!


Happy holidays to everyone celebrating! Thank you for reading my story, and I hope you get to share interesting and meaningful stories with your family this holiday season!


Note: Any reference to the US military and or the US Air Force, and or appearance in military uniform, do not constitute any endorsement by either the US military and or the US Air Force. The views and opinions presented in this article are solely the author’s, and in no way shape or form endorsed by the US military and or the US Air Force. The US military and the US Air Force maintain strict policies to be non-partisan and avoid perceptions of partisan bias.

 

About the Author

Tilak is a first generation American - his parents emigrated to the US in the 1990s, and he was the first in his family born in America. He was born, raised and educated in New Jersey. He’s always felt a special connection to our country, and so he became the first in his family to join the American military. He’ll enter Active Duty as a Cyber Officer in the US Air Force on Feb 1, 2022. For his first duty station, he’ll be heading to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, for about 6 months of tech training. After that, he's committed to serving four years on Active Duty. After his time in military service, he hopes to build a career using tech for social good. You can follow him on Instagram or connect with him on LinkedIn.

 

If you like what you’ve read and want to learn more, you can reach us at info@bluebonnetdata.org. Or, want smart, passionate, young folx to help with your data now? Bring on a Bluebonnet team!


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