On June 13, five women are expected to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Oregon State University-Cascades. Although these women have differing backgrounds, they had three things in common.
All of them were looking for a second career after their initial paths fizzled — they didn’t step onto campus straight out of high school. None had ever studied computer programming before.
And all five realized they were walking into a field with very few women — or other people who weren’t cisgender white men — in it. They want to fix that.
“From a young age, women aren’t encouraged as much as men to pursue (computer science), we’re told it’s not for us,” said one of these soon-to-be-graduates, Marji Symonds. “The more diverse minds that make up these algorithms that make up all aspects of life, the better it is for everyone.”
These five OSU-Cascades computer science students — Adrianna Guevarra, Shayla Lane, Kristen Orue, Symonds and Natashia White — will soon join that small group of women in the computer science workforce.
Their planned post-grad careers vary from a research internship at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, to a cybersecurity position with the U.S. Coast Guard, to being an engineer for a Dallas tech consulting firm. But just a few years prior, none of these women imagined having these prestigious careers — or any computer science career at all.
Before Lane, 31, started studying at OSU-Cascades in 2017, she was a hair stylist. She worked for eight years in Seattle and Bend, she said.
Beauty school left Lane with thousands of dollars in debt, and she knew hair styling wouldn’t pay that off. So she dove into computer science — something she said was terrifying at first, but proved to be a rewarding challenge.
“I always had this feeling, maybe I had the potential to do more, and the feeling of untapped potential made me feel stagnant,” Lane said. “It’s nice to feel like I’m using everything that I have.”
All of these women noted that computer science is primarily a boys club because young girls aren’t encouraged to join the field as often.
“When we were in middle and high school, it never really felt like (computer science) was an option for us,” said White, 25.
This difference in life experience was even noted by some of the men they took classes with at OSU-Cascades.
“I remember a few times saying out loud while working with men, ‘Wow, this comes so easy for you,’ and they’d say, ‘I’ve been doing it since I was 8,'” said Orue, 34. “‘You’re not behind because you’re an idiot, you’re behind because you haven’t been doing it as long.’”
To help bridge this gender gap locally, these five women started a computer science club, Hacker Refactor. One of the major goals of the group is to encourage young girls to explore computer science, and before COVID-19, they visited local middle schools and high schools to speak with girls about the field.
“A misconception is that engineering is for men, and nursing and teaching is for women,” said Guevarra, 28. “If we can diversify computer science, we can think about so many solutions that represent the world.”
Beyond working with local teens, these women also said having each other as a support group at OSU-Cascades helped push them to succeed.
“Just looking around the room and seeing someone who identifies with you in some way, it’s so exciting and creates a unique bond,” said Orue. “That’s why it’s important to teach these middle schoolers — it’s good that they’re seeing us.”
Lane hopes her group will have an impact at OSU-Cascades after they graduate.
“Hopefully … we can get newer women coming in, and maybe create a culture that can last past when we’re in school,” she said. “So next generations of computer science students at OSU-Cascades can have that support.”