On Sept. 26, 2015, police officers in Contra Costa County, California, pursued a speeding vehicle driving the wrong way on a highway. When the vehicle crashed, the officers arrested the driver.

“I was 22 years old and I served five days in jail for evading police,” said Monica Hicks, ’24. She was arrested again for missing a court date to enter her plea in the case. The situation worsened when drugs were later found on her in court, leading to a two-year state prison sentence.

It was the culmination of years of drug use and legal troubles that led her to deep personal introspection. Upon finishing her sentence, Hicks committed to changing her life. She returned to school and eventually found a place among Stanford’s student body. On Sunday, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

A seed is planted

Hicks said that she had a normal childhood in Danville, California, and was raised by good parents. She was active in gymnastics and Girl Scouts but admitted to being a“difficult child” who was often combative, argumentative, and selfish. Academics came naturally to her and she was intellectually curious, but often got caught up with the wrong crowd. “In middle school, I would climb out of my bedroom window to meet up with high schoolers and we would drink and smoke,” she recalled. Her drug use took off after trying painkillers while getting her wisdom teeth removed.

Later, tumultuous relationships with boyfriends who also used drugs further fueled her addiction. Prominent public service campaigns at the time, like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), often depicted drug users as sickly and unattractive, so “when this girl I’d met, who was absolutely beautiful, offered me meth, I decided that what I’d been told about drugs was a lie,” she said. Hicks’ first of many arrests occurred at 21 and was for drug possession.

During her prison sentence, Hicks mostly kept to herself, focused on her job in a kitchen, and spent her free time reading lots of historical fiction and novels by authors like Janet Evanovich. Many of the women housed with Hicks were much older and serving life sentences for more serious crimes. One of those inmates, Hicks recalled, noticed the striking parallels between their lives. “You are just like me when I was younger,” she told Hicks. “Looking at you is like looking into a mirror. I feel like I’m talking to myself.”

The comment terrified Hicks. “That was really scary because I knew I didn’t want to be there when I was her age,” she said.

One day in prison, Hicks read an article about the technology industry being welcoming to anyone with computer science skills and talent. “It sounded like a really accepting and forgiving career path,” she said. “And that planted a seed in my mind.” 

‘You can do the math’

Hicks served one year of her sentence and was released early for good behavior. In January 2018, she returned to her mother’s home in Danville, determined to change her ways. She ended her drug use, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and got a job. She also became inspired by her older brother’s academic pursuits.

“I went to his graduation from UC Berkeley and that was a really emotional experience for me,” she said. “Seeing what he’d accomplished, and how much he’d changed for the better, made me think that if he could do it, I could do it too.” 

... if you follow even a one-degree nudge for long enough, it can change your entire trajectory.”
Monica Hicks, ’24

Hicks enrolled at a community college to study business. When she’d expressed doubt about her ability to succeed in the math courses required for a STEM degree, a teacher wouldn’t have it. “You can do the math!” she told Hicks.

“I’m really happy she said that because it was a tiny nudge,” Hicks said. “And if you follow even a one-degree nudge for long enough, it can change your entire trajectory.”

Hicks loved and excelled in her math courses, leading her to change her academic focus to computer science.

She enrolled at Stanford in the fall of 2021. In addition to her classes, she said joining CS for Social Good and the Stanford Transfer Network helped her connect with the campus community. She also served as a section leader for CS198 and interned with a tech company called Recidiviz, which builds technical infrastructure to help the criminal justice system end mass incarceration. This summer, she will intern at Reddit’s New York office before returning to Stanford in the fall to begin her coterminal master’s studies in computer science.

Positive thinking

Hicks credits much of her personal growth to the support of mentors, as well as an optimistic attitude. “I really do believe that if you think positively and have positive energy, then things will work out,” she said. 

Her parents, who once avoided talking about her to others, attended Stanford’s Commencement ceremony on Sunday, where Hicks received her bachelor’s degree.

“They’re really happy,” she said. “And it feels really good that now they’re excited to talk about me and what I’m doing.”