An email with extraordinary consequences

By  Charna Parkey

Charna Parkey

Charna Parkey

When starting my journey in STEM I found very few women in technology, but in 2008, I realized that I wasn’t looking hard enough. When I joined the PhD program in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at UCF I glanced around and again thought, wow there are so few women here. It was at this point that I received a life changing email.

It was about a group on campus WIE (Women in Engineering), an affinity group of IEEE, going to a conference called The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. They were looking for women who wanted to go. I attended an introductory meeting and realized there were a lot more women than I had thought, we were just spread over a wide range of specific fields.

That year I traveled with a group of 14 other women, who I had never met before to Colorado. This, for a Florida native basically born at sea level, was quite a shock to the system. I had always been passionate about getting more students in STEM but this trip allowed me to see how passionate a group of women in STEM could be when brought together even for a short conference, it was live changing and eye opening. The trip allowed me to network and make new long distance friends that wouldn’t have been possible, but it also showed me how scary it could be to make yourself attend a conference with strangers when you spend your entire life surrounded by men in your field.

It was then I realized that we needed to do more than just send out an email asking those who were interested in attending to go. We needed to hand hold a select few and explain why it would be such a life changing experience specifically for them.

Since 2008, this group of Women from UCF and I have continued to bring 10-18 women a year to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). You would think that *Free* would attract students very easily but this is not so. We realized that many people would sign up to be interested and find a wide range of excuses not to attend at the last minute, and then we would be left with a small core group of women who knew already that the trip would benefit them.

We were already doing things like doing short presentations about how the conference helped us to be better technologists, public speakers, and grow our network. But this wasn’t enough. We decided to implement a point system within our club that merged women in engineering and computer science, WEECS. This system we reasoned would allow us to promote the conference all year as a reward for the hard work our members were already doing for their community, school and the club. Each type of event would be assigned a varying point reward based upon the type of contribution. Organizers, volunteers and donators would get points, but so would attendees. This allowed us to get to know our members better and find out the kinds of things they needed to take a trip to an unknown conference with a group of people they didn’t know really well.

Here is a list of things we found that improves the chances of attendance:

  • Create a point system to qualify for funding from your group.
  • Speak to each potential attendee individually and determine what they are worried about; anything from what to pack to business cards, motion sickness, exams, and makeup work can be remedied with a conversation or two and a plan.
  • Ask each student to speak with their professors well ahead of time to see what they will require for an excused absence.
  • Send official invitation letters that can be shown to professors and workplaces to have a better chance of professional development leave.
  • Require each student apply for the GHC scholarship, set up an essay critique night to help everyone out.
  • Send out frequent reminders.
  • Get the support of the department early so that you can let the students and teachers know the department supports this activity. (Monetarily or otherwise)
  • When the call for participation comes out make sure to send it along and suggest ways to get involved.
  • Do some team building exercises with those who have the points to get funding from your group and are interested in attending.
  • If students do not get the scholarship, have them apply to be a hopper (a conference volunteer).
  • Introduce a student with someone you’ve met at GHC before who is interested in their field through email.
  • Pair up new attendees with veterans to share hotel rooms, make sure they know they aren’t on their own in an unknown city. Create a safety net when something goes wrong.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but what I’m trying to get across is that we all have time commitments and some level of guilt over attending a conference when we could be doing more work, studying or keeping up with our personal lives. This past year I saw the most women in technology in one place that I had ever seen, it never ceases to amaze me how much I learn every year from this conference. The people I’ve met and are now connected with are a life inspiration for me and I have a passion to share this experience with as many women and men as possible.
I challenge you to introduce a woman in STEM to something that recharges your batteries when you are wrung out. Here I’ve used GHC as an example but there are other things that I do as well. (Volunteer with younger students, paint, read, etc.) Inspiration comes in many form, where do you get yours?

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