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When Molly Stevens settled in Berkeley, California, she realized why she loved living close to college or universities.
Stevens lived in East Lansing as a teen and got her first taste of the rhythm, culture and diversity of college towns. Those years, she said, continue to influence her perspective, even though nearly 30 years and thousands of miles separate her from a place she calls home.
As the director of user experience research at Uber, Stevens believes coming of age in East Lansing drove her appreciation of both the similarities and differences among people. Her education through East Lansing Public Schools provided immersive, team-center, and hands-on learning that she said prepared her for college and careers.
“Growing up in a diverse town and household helped me develop the power of divergent thinking and the ability to think creatively,” she said. “I’m a people-first type of manager, and I believe you have to recognize that everyone on your team is a human being first.”
Stevens moved to East Lansing from Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1985 when she was in the seventh grade. Her mom, Dannelle Stevens, was starting her Ph.D. in educational psychology at Michigan State University. To make life easy, the two moved within walking distance of all the schools they would attend.
“We lived a few blocks from MSU and two blocks from the high school on Charles Street,” Stevens said. “It was awesome. I could roll out of bed 10 minutes before school and get there by the last bell.”
Like today, the neighborhood on the edge of the Bailey district is a mix of university professors, long-time residents and a few college students. Both Stevens and her mother immediately noticed how friendly people were, minus the “California enthusiasm” they had noticed out west.
Molly Stevens and her mom, Dannelle, lived on Charles Street with quick access to the high school. “It was awesome. I could roll out of bed 10 minutes before school and get there by the last bell.”
“I picked up on what my mom called ‘the Midwestern mildness’ quickly,” Stevens said. “My mom thought it was fun when she asked me how I was doing and I said ‘pretty good’ rather than ‘Oh, my God, fabulous.’”
Stevens made friends easily and felt right at home. Many of her peers were ‘transplants’ from other parts of the U.S. or world, with parents who were affiliated in some way with the university. In time, Stevens got to know even more of her neighbors as she and her mom started a small lawn business, cutting grass and tending landscapes for residents and a couple sororities.
“Overall, I was quite happy,” she said. “I had great teachers, and went to school with students who were open to ideas and thoughtful about communicating with each other. I keep in touch with a couple people and we often reflect on how lucky we were to have such a great environment for high school.”
Stevens started her freshman year at ELHS in 1987 and graduated in 1991. She already knew the grounds since she had begun taking German at the high school in eighth grade.
“I had been studying German since elementary school and wanted to continue when I moved to East Lansing,” she said. “The teachers worked it out so I could walk from the middle school to the high school and take more advanced courses there.”
Stevens’ interest in culture, international issues and language led her to join the Model UN Club at ELHS. She was also the photo editor of Ceniad—the high school yearbook. Her passion for language and photography followed her to the University of Michigan where she majored in German and worked as a photographer for Michigan Daily—the university’s student newspaper. Becoming skilled at desktop publishing and digital photography techniques, Stevens landed a job at the image control desk of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In a couple years, she was doing image control work at the Irish Times in Dublin while her husband attended Trinity College.
Stevens eventually returned to Atlanta to attend graduate school. She studied design and research, and when she graduated, became a useability consultant. Career opportunities took her and her husband to the New York City area where she began working for Google. During her eight years with the tech giant, Stevens worked in New York, in China for three years, and relocated to California.
She's worked in Atlanta, Dublin, New York, China, and now California. Molly Stevens certainly has accumulated a lifetime of worldly experience since graduating from East Lansing High School in 1991.
Intrigued by entrepreneurial culture, Stevens left Google to work with a start-up focused on digital advertising. About four years ago, she wound her way to Uber. Today, she manages a large global team of about 100 people that analyzes user experience in 64 countries and 700 cities.
“In a roundabout way, I guess you could say my experience with photography and the high school year book led me to pursue my graduate degree in Atlanta,” Stevens said. “And that experience led me to where I am today.”
Although far away, Stevens said she still finds an occasional window to travel back to East Lansing to visit friends who have stayed in town. Some things have changed, others haven’t. Favorite haunts like El Azteco and Flat, Black and Circular are still part of the scene, despite the changing landscape of stores, interconnections with Lansing, and new, taller buildings in the city’s core.
“Living in East Lansing and going to school there was a super positive experience for me,” Stevens said. “I really loved the international diversity, and the access to all the interesting things and events on campus.”
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