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DIGITAL 2021: inspiration and conversation


 
DIGITAL 2021

Written by Paige Normand, CS Advisor and Outreach Coordinator

On Saturday the Women in Technology (WIT) club hosted their 9th Annual DIGITAL event: Dukes Inspiring Girls into Technology Across Limits, which historically has included in-person technology workshops for middle and high school students to introduce them to different areas of computer science and inspire young women to pursue their interests.

With the event online this year, Dr. Weikle, a CS professor and the faculty advisor for WIT, was excited about the ways this not only opened up the opportunity to bring in an illustrious speaker, it also made the event more accessible to a wider range of participants. Dr. Weikle explained, “I felt that during this time of the pandemic, when we are doing so much in Zoom and that we would likely primarily reach highly privileged participants with a technical activity only, it was important for the event to be accessible.” Dr. Weikle invited Dr. Nicki Washington, Professor of Practice at Duke University, who has a PhD in computer science and is an author of several books that encourage young people, especially black women, to come to college and to participate in technology related fields.

All students who attended the event were given a free copy of her book Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving in the Tech Field as well as a hands-on technical activity. After Dr. Washington’s talk, participants joined small breakout rooms to discuss the topics with WIT members, student volunteers, and JMU faculty.

Dare to be Dope

Dr. Washington shared inspirational messages that resonated with those attending, such as being flexible, adapting to changing circumstances and being coachable. Dr. Simmons, the CS Department Head said, “I always look forward to our DIGITAL events as an opportunity to support our commitment to diversity in CS and this year’s event was a huge success. We were so lucky to hear such an empowering message from Dr. Washington and hear about students' experiences during the breakout sessions.”


DIGITAL 2021 - group shot 1

Hannah Ripley, a senior CS student and former WIT Conference Chair, described how closely Dr. Washington’s work aligns with the goals of DIGITAL: “One of WIT's ongoing goals is to develop a closer relationship with the Harrisonburg community through outreach events like DIGITAL. Getting to talk with young women about substantial, important issues such as prejudice in academia and computing and sharing how we each overcome and combat those prejudices has the capacity to instill hope, and with any luck, the courage to pursue fields that haven't always welcomed everyone. Honest, sincere discussions are the first step in improving any community, and we had the opportunity to engage in those discussions with students during DIGITAL.”

Many of the attendees were connected to the event through Church World Service (CWS), the Harrisonburg Immigration and Refugee office, which has collaborated with the Computer Science department to offer a computing camp over the summer. One of the refugee students shared how much Dr. Washington’s talk resonated with her own experience as she adjusts to living in the United States. She saw similarities between her and Dr. Washington because they’re both ambitious and want to accomplish great things, yet have to overcome the barriers that arise when women or anyone seen as an outsider try to push into these spaces.

Rebecca Sprague, the Community Program Coordinator for CWS, cited one of the success of the DIGITAL event is that it offers yet another opportunity for “young people to interact with college students, professors, community members, and the University on issues of career and work and culture in their new country. And we appreciate JMU’s support and continued willingness to include us, because we know how meaningful it is to our clients and other community members as well.”

Deep discussions

Nora Osei is a JMU alumna who participated as one of the leaders in the breakout room conversations. She was moved by Dr. Washington’s talk and described how “we all listened intently as [Dr. Washington] shared her powerful story that is so common to people of color: you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Well, Dr. Washington has traveled more than ‘half as far’ and she shared some insightful life tips that were beneficial to everyone on how to overcome the trials she endured as an African American woman in the STEM field.”

Ms. Osei said she really enjoyed the breakout rooms where she was “able to converse with high school students aspiring to major in STEM and fully digest all the golden nuggets Dr. Washington shared. Overall, the DIGITAL event on Saturday was insightful, motivating, and fun!”

For Ms. Ripley, one of those golden nuggets was Dr. Washington’s focus on creating your own path and finding a place in a community where you feel valued: “I think Dr. Washington put it best, we're not just searching for who we are but whose we are. For me, I feel not only like I am a computer scientist, but that I belong to the Computer Science department at JMU. They're my people. I feel valued here, and I wouldn't have the same capacity to grow and learn without the environment we've fostered.”

DIGITAL 2021 - group shot 2

An impactful event that ripples out

Dr. Washington is also working hard at the college level to bring cultural competency to computing educators. She participated in discussions in the computer science educators email listserv this summer that were important commentaries on what CS faculty should be doing. Dr. Weikle is attending her 3C course this spring and hopes to bring some of that material into the computer science introductory courses at JMU this next academic year. Dr. Weikle says, “It is an important time to be lifting up voices that help us overcome our cultural and personal struggles as well as connect us with one another. I hope this is a piece of what was accomplished on Saturday.”

 

Questions or comments? Please contact Paige Normand at cs-outreach@jmu.edu

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Published: Friday, March 5, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, April 8, 2021

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