Though I started my post-bacc Computer Science degree in 2021, my first attempt was actually in 2015. I was in my second year at university and I had one year of pre-engineering coursework under my belt. I was undecided on my exact engineering major, but I had excelled at using MATLAB and decided to enroll in the intro to Computer Science course: CS161.
My first couple days of lecture went well. I was a shy student and sat near the front of the lecture hall, taking detailed notes on the binary number system. I liked the professor and the material made sense to me.
On Thursday, I walked into my first lab session. I remember that I had an event right after the lab, so I was wearing a skirt and had curled my hair. I scanned the half-filled computer lab for a seat. Before I could claim one, I was stopped by a TA.
“This is CS161, but I believe there is a CS101 skills course in the lab down the hall.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m in the correct lab,” I told him. I glanced at the room number to verify.
“Let’s check on the roster,” he said.
The TA made me state my name and paged through his clipboard to identify me on his list. Once he was satisfied, I was free to navigate to an empty computer.
My cheeks burned. I was mortified. I watched as more students shuffled into the room without roster checks. Of all the 30 students in the room, I was the only woman.
It was near the start of the session and I thought I was safe from further embarrassment when a second TA stopped by my desk. He pulled out a clipboard and made me repeat the roster exercise. Apparently he had been the only one in the room to not observe my first humiliation.
The lab assignment was simple. We used C++ to build… a clock? A calculator? I don’t remember, it was some tedious intro project. Both TAs lingered over my shoulder to offer swift “advice” for any mistype. My classmates largely ignored me and turned any other direction to seek collaboration. I completed my assignment as quickly as possible so I could be one of the first to leave the stifling room.
I dropped the class a couple days later. I knew I had the ability to learn the content and succeed. But I did not want to spend the next four years of my life in that environment. Instead, I ended up in Industrial Engineering where there was a staggeringly high percentage of women. Maybe 20 – 30%?
I wish this wasn’t my experience. I wish this had been a product of “oh, that was just the 70’s” but it was 2015. I wish that at a block party, my childhood neighbor didn’t have to tell me she had an almost identical experience in a different room, different university.
I don’t regret my time in Industrial Engineering at all. I gained skills, made friends and had fantastic internships and a job right out of college. It is truly a rewarding experience to come back to my CS education as an adult. I have significantly more confidence in my capabilities than I did as a teen and I no longer have to deal with 19 year-old boys (at least in person).
But I hope that the undergraduate environment is shifting. I hope my experience becomes less common.
If anyone is interested in donating time or money to a fantastic organization that promotes tech education for young women, trans and non-binary students, consider ChickTech. I have volunteered with this organization since 2018 and these high school students continue to inspire me. They are the reason I came back to school to pursue my post-bacc degree. The support and encouragement they show to one another is astounding and something we should all strive to replicate.