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May 5, 2014

Valedictorian Inspires Women in Tech

Each year, the James Madison Faculty Senate awards the honor of Valedictorian to the student who has achieved the highest grade point average during their time at JMU. More than grades, however, the Valedictorian is a student that demonstrates the highest values of a talented, hardworking scholar. The College of Integrated Science and Engineering is pleased to announce computer science major Melissa Von Wald as JMU’s 2014 Valedictorian. Von Wald is an exceptional student, a member of Women in Technology and Gamma Sigma Sigma. Additionally, she is the president of computer science honors society Upsilon Pi Epsilon. Through her work in Women in Technology, Von Wald has encouraged other women to explore and pursue their own careers in computing and technology.

Despite living closer to the University of Maryland, another school known for its excellent computer science program, Von Wald found JMU to be the perfect fit for her because of the friendly atmosphere, smaller classes and passionate professors. “JMU has become a family and I feel comfortable here,” Von Wald said. “It’s just a really great community, everyone that I’ve interacted with has been wonderful.” As an incoming freshman, Von Wald was a recipient of JMU’s Second Century Scholarship, an award given to students pursuing STEM majors. “It was a great honor to be recognized for my accomplishments in high school,” she continued, “it was continued support in my plans to study computer science.”

During her freshman year, Von Wald helped to create JMU’s chapter of Women in Technology, a network for women in computing and technology across campus. “There are quite a few women in science and math, the place we’re lacking is the technology and engineering part,” Von Wald said. As Von Wald explains, the low number of women in the field is due to a combination of the media’s portrayal of computer scientists, the lack of programming courses offered in middle and high schools, and an overall misconception about programming. To help reverse this trend, Women in Technology is dedicated to supporting and encouraging women to pursue their passion in technology and programming. “I definitely think that anyone who is interested in [science and technology] has the potential to learn and become really good at the subject,” Von Wald continued. “That’s why Women in Technology is there to support their decision and keep them in the field.”

Von Wald and Women in Technology has also been active with a number of K-12 outreach programs designed to inspire younger girls to become interested in technology and engineering. “In elementary school, middle school and high school, you’re always taking math, English, history, and foreign language classes, but there’s no pressure to take a computer science class,” Van Wald said. To combat this, Women in Technology hosted “D.I.G.I.T.A.L.”, or Dukes Inspiring Girls into Technology Across Limits, last year. This event brought girls from local middle schools in to explore technology and basic programming. “The purpose was to encourage the girls, show them the cool things they can do with technology, and if their schools offer classes in it to keep pursuing it,” Von Wald exclaimed. “Just kind of show them the fun side of it!”

Von Wald has also been sponsored by the Computer Science Department and Women in Technology to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference for two years. As the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, this conferences brings together thousands of women in the field each year to connect and inspire each other. “Here in classes and in the workforce you definitely feel like a minority, but you get to this conference and you’re surrounded by amazing, technical role models,” she said. “It’s definitely kept me interested in computing and putting other women and girls into computing.” Giving advice for other women pursuing technical majors, Von Wald pointed to the importance of finding a mentor and pushing through even when the going gets tough. “Don’t be afraid to do what you love and don’t give up when it gets difficult,” she continued. “If you’re interested in it, if you love programming, and if you love technical things, stick with it.”

After graduating, Von Wald will be jumping headfirst into the world of computer programming as a software engineer associate in the intelligence and defense sector of Agilex, an Information Technology contracting company. While many women move out of technical roles, Von Wald plans to encourage more women to both get into technology and to stick with it. “I can say that I really want to stay in the field and I want to stay technical,” Von Wald continued. “I’ll go with the flow, as it comes and as my goals change.” With her passion for both programming and inspiring others, Von Wald is sure to continue a tradition of excellence throughout her career. 



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