Angela Kearns is a New Mexico State University senior graduating with a degree in computer science and mathematics. Last summer she interned at Nike, where she has a job waiting for her after she receives her diploma Saturday, May 11.
She is among the growing number of students who have helped NMSU to rank 22nd among four-year public universities in the United States (which includes more than 200 institutions) for enrolling and graduating women in computer science according to a recent data analysis compiled by ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education.’
“When I started college I was a declared math major, and I honestly knew nothing about computer science,” Kearns said. “Freshman year I enrolled in an introductory computer science course, and I fell in love.”
‘The Chronicle’ analyzes data on higher education to compare colleges on various measures and publishes its analysis in a weekly feature called ‘Chronicle Lists,’ put together by Ruth Hammond, a senior editor.
In January, the list titled ‘Which Colleges Are Best and Worst at Enrolling and Graduating Women in Computer Science and Engineering?’ identified NMSU among the 25 best. The data is from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, published by the U.S. Department of Educations National Center for Education Statistics.
Kearns is among the women that NMSU has attracted and retained to earn a degree in computer science. For many, a key program at NMSU has created an atmosphere of community that invited women in to what has long been considered a male-dominated course of study in the U.S.
Enrico Pontelli, dean of NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences and Regents professor in computer science, credits a program he spearheaded more than 12 years ago with boosting the number of women studying computer science at NMSU. The Young Women in Computing program, part of the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Computing Initiative, has directly impacted more than 13,000 students.
“The program has involved many faculty members, staff members, student researchers and school teachers,” Pontelli said. “We launched the program in 2006 as a response to the realization that our numbers of undergraduate women enrolled in computer science tanked to about eight percent.
“At that time, NSF had just initiated a new program, and I was able to secure a small supplement to pilot a summer camp for high school students. We were able to expand this pilot into a broader program, inclusive of both summer and academic year experiences. That funding provided us with the opportunity to explore a variety of approaches and learn what key elements make a difference. A second NSF grant, awarded in 2014, was instrumental to formalize the core principles that underlie our efforts.”
Now the percentage of women in computer science at NMSU is close to 24 percent.
For Kearns, the program made the difference in her choosing computer science over another course of study.
“Working with YWiC has helped me so much throughout college,” Kearns said. “It’s given me a support system and community within computer science. YWiC and the NMSU computer science department have greatly impacted my choice in careers by first introducing me to computer science and by providing me with the support to stay in computer science. YWiC and the YWiC coordinators have pushed me to achieve things that I couldn’t have even imagined.”
Catalina Sanchez-Maes was one of hundreds of fifth-grade girls impacted by her participation in an NMSU YWiC-sponsored summer camp.
“I learned that computer science has multiple applications from running software on the computer to more tangible outcomes. I also learned that it could be used in anything that interests me from making music to making a game,” said Sanchez-Maes. “I absolutely loved the hands-on learning that I experienced, which led me to continue on the path of computer science.”
Sanchez-Maes was one of the three NMSU students of 50 selected nationwide this spring to attend the Google Hispanic Student Leadership Summit in Austin, Texas, where she felt ‘connected, embraced and valued in the tech world.’
Pontelli points to several principles that have made YWiC a success. “The sense of belonging is critical, to defeat stereotypes and impostor syndrome,” he said. “But the support of parents, family members, community leaders and K-12 teachers is also important to encourage the pursuit of studies in computing. YWiC pursues outreach to gain early interest, through exposure to the excitement of computing as early as fifth grade, and follows up by sustaining the interest as students move through the grades, especially at the transition points of middle to high school and high school to college. Last but not least, technical preparation offered provides these young women with competence to feel at par, or superior, to male counterparts.”
Pontelli explained the practical reasoning behind encouraging more young women to get involved in computing.
“The field of computing is struggling to identify enough talent to meet the workforce demand. Right now we are missing half of the potential talent by not engaging women. Furthermore, there are many studies that show that diverse working teams are more efficient and produce more effective solutions and designs.”
Las Cruces native Elena Davidson is one of thousands of young women who entered NMSU’s computer science program through YWiC’s middle and high school pipeline. Davidson interned at Google in 2017, received the Computer Alliance for Hispanic Serving Institutions Scholar Award in October 2018 and was also one of three NMSU students selected to participate in Google’s Hispanic Student Leadership Summit.
“YWiC is the reason I am here today,” Davidson said. “I wouldn’t have considered computer science otherwise. I genuinely believed computer science was about guys hiding in their mother’s basement coding for 24-hours straight.”
A weeklong summer camp at NMSU changed her mind. “I remember walking out of that presentation with my project and saying to my mom, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I’m graduating in May and none of this would be happening without YWiC.
Davidson worked with YWiC throughout her college career — as a camp assistant, camp instructor and ultimately an undergraduate research assistant, providing mentorship and encouraging other young women to follow in her footsteps.
“Success stories are fundamental,” Pontelli emphasized. “All our activities in the K-12 system are deployed by undergraduate female students, who serve as peer mentors and as role models to younger students.”
Natasha Nesiba and Esperanza Medina are among many success stories of recent NMSU computer science graduates. Nasiba is a software engineer at Google, who received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science at NMSU in 2013 and 2015 and also served YWiC by mentoring students. Medina graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2015 with a double major in mathematics and computer science.
Before graduation, Medina was offered a job at GoDaddy, where she is currently a software developer.
While the YWiC program helps get young women interested in computing, the NMSU computer science faculty is critical to support them through graduation.
“Dr. Karen Villaverde was my instructor and it was encouraging to see a female teaching the course,” Medina said. “It was the professors I encountered in the computer science department that really made a difference for me. I realized that a lot of the feelings I had been having were common. YWiC helped me research the gender gap and get a close look at the problem by allowing me to interact first hand with the youth of Las Cruces.
“From the research I did by first hand teaching in the YWiC summer camps, I witnessed countless intelligent young women that know the answers to your questions, but lack the confidence to speak the answers in a mixed gender class,” Medina said. “YWiC offers all-female summer camps that allow young women to build the confidence in themselves independent of the pressure of being in a mixed gender environment and prepares them with the knowledge to succeed when they do return to mixed classes.”
Gabriella Garcia, the third NMSU student to attend the recent Google Hispanic Leadership Summit, followed a different path to computer science at NMSU. Right after graduating high school in 2008, she entered NMSU to study engineering but was forced to drop out when her father lost his job and she had to help support her family. More than 10 years later, Garcia is back at NMSU after earning an associate degree at Dona Ana Community College. She is now earning her bachelor’s degree in computer science at NMSU and is applying for an internship at Google. Garcia also wants to work with YWiC to help mentor women in computer science and be a role model for them.
“I’m hoping through my story, because I have a different story, that they understand if you’re younger or older, it doesn’t matter ¬ anybody can do it,” Garcia said. “You can go to school any point in your life because no matter what, that time is going to pass whether your in school, whether you’re having kids or whatever. So if the time’s going to pass anyway, you can get your degree – it doesn’t matter if you’re 30, 40, 60, 80 years old. Do it whenever you get the chance. Just don’t lose your inspiration.”
Author: Minerva Baumann – NMSU