I first realized I was the exception, not the rule, around the age of 19. I was a second-semester freshman taking Intro to Programming at Johnson C. Smith University, a small HBCU in Charlotte, NC. At the time, I intended to major in Marketing and minor in Computer Science, so this was the first of my minor requirements.
I found it odd that most of my classmates had never programmed before. I’d aced BASIC and PASCAL programming classes in high school, but opted to not take AP Computer Science as a senior (cause I hadn’t planned on majoring in CS). So taking C programming was just the next thing to crush, in my book. That was my first clue.
The second (and more telling) clue was in my sophomore year, once I finally declared my major (after being persuaded by my Intro to Programming teacher in 1997 that CS would be the most competitive major for decades to come). Once I was knee-deep in major courses, I noticed that none of the professors in my department looked like me. I have to note, again, that I attended an HBCU. While I had plenty of Black professors in humanities, science, English, and even math, I NEVER had a single Black CS professor…ever
By the time I reached my senior year, I completely understood why. However, this “surprise” wasn’t just part of my teenage ignorance. I grew up in Durham, NC, home to Research Triangle Park, or RTP. For those who don’t know, “The Park,” as we called it, has been home to science and tech companies like IBM, Glaxo, SAS, Nortel and more since before I can remember. My mother was a programmer for IBM, who progressed into levels of management throughout her 30+ year career. My father was a K-12 educator-turned-administrator. My godparents were IBM programmers and high-school math teachers. Most of the kids I grew up with who looked like me had at least one parent working in The Park. They were engineers, researchers, college professors, K-12 educators, and doctors. They were Black, and they were all alums of HBCUs like North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T, and JCSU, to name a few.
See, in my world, all of the engineers, researchers, and STEM folks I actually KNEW (and who knew me) looked just like me. They played a pivotal role in my upbringing, and they led by example. So when I chose to attend an HBCU, I was amazed that, at an HBCU, there wasn’t a single Black professor.
I know, without a doubt, that my success as an undergraduate and graduate student was due in large part to these role models throughout my childhood. When I enrolled at North Carolina State University, there were only two females in the department. Of course, there were no Blacks. I didn’t need to look for myself in them though. I had a village of people who raised me and prepped me to thrive, in spite of.
But what about all of those kids who, in 2015, look like me and don’t have those same role models? How are they supposed to see themselves as thriving in a field where the majority look nothing like them, don’t understand them, and as far as they can see, really don’t care whether they succeed in the field or not?
Now, let me be clear, before anyone tries to say there are plenty of non-Blacks who have been great role models to Black kids. Yes, that’s true. However, as a Black woman, I know that the greatest role models are the ones who look like me, have a shared experience with me, and I can see myself BECOMING them! All of the adults in my life knew me well enough to push me to do and be more, and discipline me when I wasn’t living up to those expectations. I could see myself being just like my mother, the woman who raised, housed, fed, and clothed me, or my godmother, who wasn’t afraid to “check” me when needed. How was I supposed to see myself in the White female teacher who pushed me to become a great writer (thanks for that though!) and appreciate great literature like “The Allegory of the Cave” or “Dante’s Inferno?” Sorry, but it’s just not the same.
In order to truly get students of color in the CS pipeline, the first thing they need are true role models, those people who look like the same students we’re trying to impact, engage, and retain. There’s no way around it. All of these organizations can continue to throw code at kids and tell them “Hey look, you TOO can become a computer scientist!” The truth is, this will never work, as is. It may get kids excited for a moment, but it won’t impact students for a lifetime. It won’t because, if you’re able to convince them that they can learn to program, they will soon find that, if they’re fortunate enough to have CS courses in high school, the teachers will more than likely NOT be Black. If they turn on the television and see anything about computer science, the people leading the charge will more than likely NOT be Black. And oftentimes, if you don’t look like me, how can you really “get” me? How can you understand what’s important to me, my life experiences, challenges, etc.? You can’t! A lot of times, they don’t.
And before people respond asking, “Where are these role models? We can’t find them!” let me assure you this is more than false. The fact remains that WE are everywhere…EVERYWHERE. The problem is, we aren’t the ones you’re seeing when the time comes. I can start with Dr. Mark Dean, who holds several patents on the very computers we all use every day. I could then move to Dr. Marc Hannah, who wasn’t a computer scientist by training, but was responsible for all of those Pixar movies your kids love to watch! That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
About four years ago, we piloted a CS course at the Howard University Middle School for Math and Science. My research team taught approximately 120 6th-8th graders a yearlong curriculum, infusing cultural relevance throughout the activities, projects, and speakers. Our class was 97% Black and 3% Hispanic. Our instructor team was ONLY Black and Hispanic computer scientists. Our guest speakers? ONLY Black and Hispanic computer scientists. We were more than intentional in our efforts. On the first day of class, we asked students to name any computer scientist they could think of. Across 120 students, we received only these three names: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Never mind that there were two Ph.D.’s, 2 graduate students, and 2 undergraduates asking this. All these kids knew was what they’d SEEN and been told.
Had you asked 11 year-old Nicki to name a computer scientist, the FIRST name I would have eagerly blurted out in 1988 was “MY MAMA!!!” That 11 year-old Nicki became Dr. Washington. It wasn’t by accident or by a few non-Blacks telling me “you TOO can do it!” Nope…it was by the village of people who showed me that, despite what the odds say, we made it, and so will you.
Dr. Nicki Washington is a computer science professor and author of “Prepped for Success: What Every Parent Should Know About the College Application Process” and “Stay Prepped: 10 Steps to Succeeding in College (and Enjoying the Experience).” She is a featured speaker on computer science education, diversity in computer science and STEM, and preparing for college.