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NMSU’s Young Women in Computing program celebrates 15 years of success

  • By Billy Huntsman
  • wthv8420@nmsu.edu
  • Nov 15, 2021
girls above at computers-below in t-shirts
four women

After 15 years of introducing thousands of women to computer science careers, New Mexico State University’s Young Women in Computing program is still going strong. When the program started in 2006, enrollment of women in computer science at NMSU was less than half the national average. By 2019, NMSU’s enrollment and graduation of women in computer science was ranked among the top 25 in the country.

“At that time the national female enrollment in computer science was around 18 percent, while NMSU’s enrollment was around eight percent in 2006,” said Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College of Arts and sciences and a Regents Professor of computer science who started the program with a small National Science Foundation grant. “in 2019 we were at 21 percent.”

The number of women in NMSU’s computer science program kept rising steadily. In 2019, the program ranked 22nd among four-year public universities in the United States (which includes more than 200 institutions) for enrolling and graduating women in computer science according to data analysis compiled by "The Chronicle of Higher Education."

Since its inception, the program has impacted more than 25,000 students.

Natasha Nesiba was in the first cohort of NMSU’s Young Women in Computing. She’s currently a senior software engineer at Google.

“I didn’t know anything about computer science before I joined the YWiC summer program,” Nesiba said. “When I was in high school, the YWiC opportunity sounded exciting because I wanted to meet other girls in high school who liked STEM.”

After her first YWiC summer camp experience, Nesiba was hooked.

“I was set on studying computer science in college,” she said. “I returned the following summer as a YWiC camp assistant and joined as an undergraduate research assistant during my time at NMSU.”

In its first year, YWiC had computer-science faculty prepare and deliver the lectures to the students in the summer camp.

“We quickly realized that didn’t work,” Pontelli said. “We now hire undergraduate research assistants from the department, all women, and they choose the topics and prepare and deliver the lectures.”

This method of instruction has been beneficial both for the K-12 students in YWiC computer camp as well as the undergraduate students teaching them.

“I’ve seen these undergraduate students transform from very shy, not very confident individuals to leaders, someone who can be put in front of an audience and deliver,” Pontelli said. “They go out and get great jobs and become leaders in their fields. That, to me, is the great accomplishment of the program.”

Nesiba went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2013, then her master’s in 2015. “YWiC played a pivotal role in my career, as I would have been on a different career path without it,” she said. “The program introduced me to computer science and sparked my passion for technology, and allowed me to share that passion and give back to my community by teaching and inspiring other underrepresented students.”

Angela Kearns, who graduated from New Mexico State University in 2019 with a degree in computer science and mathematics, had a job waiting for her at Nike as a software engineer.

"When I started college, I was a math major, and I honestly knew nothing about computer science," Kearns said. "Freshman year I enrolled in an introductory computer science course, and I fell in love." 

Kearns joined YWiC working as an instructor and mentor from 2015 through 2019.

“Working with YWiC helped me so much throughout college,” Kearns said. “It’s given me a support system and community within computer science. YWiC and the YWiC coordinators have pushed me to achieve things that I couldn't have even imagined."

At first, YWiC was only a summer program for high-school students. Over the years, it has expanded to include middle and elementary school children. Other activities have included an after-school program, as well as roadshows to the schools themselves.

Nesiba said programs like YWiC are a critical component in the process of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the technology industry. “In order for companies and organizations to elevate their products to truly serve everyone, they must hire everyone to build them, including and especially those in underrepresented groups,” she said.

“There are many studies that show that diverse working teams are more efficient and produce more effective solutions and designs,” Pontelli said. “The field of computing is struggling to identify enough talent to meet the workforce demand for women.”

Gabriella Garcia followed a non-traditional route into computer science. After graduating high school 2008, she entered NMSU as an engineering major but was forced to drop out when her father lost his job and she had to help support her family. More than 10 years later, Garcia returned and after earning an associate’s degree at Dona Ana Community College, earned her bachelor of science degree in computer science at NMSU in 2020. She’s currently a fulltime Google Technology Resident.

"I’m hoping through my story, because I have a different story, that women understand if you’re younger or older, it doesn’t matter ­— anybody can do it," Garcia said. “You can go to school any point in your life.”

Catalina Sanchez-Maes was among hundreds of fifth-grade girls impacted by participation in an NMSU YWiC-sponsored summer camp. She is studying human/computer interaction and graduating from NMSU with her bachelor of science degree in computer science in May 2022.

"I learned that computer science has multiple applications from running software on the computer to more tangible outcomes. I also learned that it could be used in anything that interests me from making music to making a game,” Sanchez-Maes said. “I absolutely loved the hands-on learning that I experienced, which led me to continue on the path of computer science.”

“Success stories are fundamental,” Pontelli emphasized. “All our activities in the K-12 system are deployed by undergraduate female students, who serve as peer mentors and as role models to younger students.”

The topics and activities involved in YWiC change every year, according to new trends and research opportunities in the technology industry.

“The trend right now is artificial intelligence, and data analytics are bigger than computer science,” Pontelli said. “Right now, we’re in the process of shifting the focus of the program away from strictly computer science to those topics of AI and data analytics. If we can engage students in those topics and get them interested, then, whatever field they decide to go into –medicine, sociology, criminal justice – they have those very important tools and the skills to solve problems.”

Learn more about NMSU’s YWiC program at https://ywic.nmsu.edu/.

 

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