I entered a Ph.D. program in order to pursue a dream of conducting research in areas of HCI. 2 years into my Ph.D. program, I was strongly considering quitting. I was a part-time student and living far from campus. I felt very isolated both in the classroom and in my department. The week I was strongly considering my withdrawal, I received an email about a social being held on campus. It was on a Friday, so I decided to attend. There I met another grad student and we had a long conversation about our grad programs. When she heard that I was considering leaving the university, she recommended that I talk to a particular professor in my department first. I figured it couldn’t hurt, so I emailed the prof and asked for a meeting; that was my very first lean in…
I met with Dr. Tiffani Williams and explained my issues and concerns. She listened quietly (there were a few hmms and hmfs here and there) and when I finished, she asked me the question that would become my driving force from then on: “Ok, so you’ve got a problem. Now what are you gonna do to change that?” It seemed like such a simple question for a Computer Scientist. Solving problems is what I do, but it astounded me that I had never considered fixing the problems that were indirectly threatening my success in the career. There was no reason to wait until I felt isolated before reaching out to people.
Dr. Williams introduced me to one of her students, another woman in the same program; we became fast friends. She was president of the Aggie Women in Computer Science (AWICS) and got me more involved with the group. In the a span of just a few weeks my support network grew from just one mentor to an entire group of women in computer science who shared similar experiences. Through AWICS, I had the opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. After that experience, I felt connected, inspired, empowered and my network grew exponentially.
I have since attended many more programs and events geared toward empowering women in technology and I “leaned in”. I sought out opportunities, not only to attend these events, but also to contribute to their organization and planning. I responded to the call to action at the first Women of Color in Computing gathering that I attended and worked to create the Black Women in Computing online community. This group allowed me and others like me to create a network with women who I may only see once or twice a year, but who share the same unique challenges of being a double minority in computing.
It’s sometimes hard for me to believe just two short years ago, I almost walked away from my graduate program and missed out on all these experiences. Even today, there are times when I may feel isolated, frustrated, stuck, or just plain lost. However, now I know that feeling this way is not the problem, but staying that way is. So, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in the situation I was in, or may be dealing with some other challenge in their life, is learn to lean in, don’t give up on yourself, don’t be afraid to seek support, and keep asking yourself, “What am I going to do to change things?” You may not have an answer right away, but just knowing you can make a change is a start.