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Celebrating Women in Computing

Emily Martin ’18 spent the better part of two days engaging in what she calls “the job search equivalent of speed dating.” 

Thao Nguyen ’18 was “inspired and empowered” listening to some of the most successful women in the field talk about their early failures.

Maddie Grey ’16 shed some tears as she listened to acclaimed video game designer  Brianna Wu describe the brutal harassment she encountered from males in the gaming world.

Computer science professor Jennifer Walter (third from the left) with about half of the “Young Gracehoppers” who attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in October. Photo by John Abbott

Martin, Nguyen, and Grey were part of Vassar’s record contingent at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest annual gathering in the world of women in science and technology. Nineteen computer science students from Vassar joined more than 12,000 students, faculty and industry employees and executives at this year’s conference Oct. 14-16 in Houston, TX. Hopper graduated from Vassar in 1928, taught mathematics here for 13 years, and was a pioneer in the computer industry with the U.S. Navy and Sperry Rand.

“I loved everything about the conference,” Martin says, “but it was especially cool because we were a part of the Vassar legacy, a part of what Grace started here.”

Associate Professor of Computer Science Jennifer Walter has been taking her students to the conference since 2000. This year‘s group was her largest because the conference coincided with Vassar’s fall break. Walter says she enjoys watching them mingle with thousands of others in the field and come back to campus excited about their studies and their future careers. “I’ve always found it’s a great way to get my students motivated, to help them realize the possibilities that are out there,” she says. “Going to the conference always helps my computer science majors determine and discover what they want to do.”

Martin, a math major and computer science minor from Needham, MA, says she learned a lot about the industry in rapid-fire sessions at the conference called “Student Opportunity” tables. Representatives from 50 of the largest high-tech companies in the world each sat at a table with 10 chairs. Conference participants filled the seats and engaged in conversations with the industry experts and each other. After 20 minutes, a bell rang, and everyone had to find another table. ”As a sophomore, I just wanted to learn about jobs in the field that might interest me,” Martin says. “I also learned what questions I should ask when I actually go on an interview for a job or an internship.”

Students weren’t the only ones using the Student Opportunity tables, Martin says. “At one table, I was sitting between a woman from Google and a woman from Amazon who were thinking about changing jobs,“ she says. “And here I was, a college sophomore, engaging them in discussions about the industry.”

Nguyen, a math and computer science double major from Vietnam, spent a lot of her time at the conference visiting a maze of booths of recruiters from high tech companies from throughout the world. “I spent the first day talking to people from the giant companies – Microsoft and Google and Apple,” she says. “The next day I concentrated on some of the companies I hadn’t heard of.

“Everyone I talked to was awesome,” Nguyen adds. “I was able to ask them how I should prepare my resume, what courses I need to take and other things that will really help me when I start looking for a job.”

Grey, a computer science major from Bernardsville, NJ, says Wu’s speech about the threats and harassment she received from males in the gaming world during her early years in the video game industry would stay with her forever. “She was inspiring. I cried during the speech, and at the end she received a standing ovation,” Grey says.

She says was also inspired by a panel discussion called It’s OK to Fail. “Here were some of the top professional women in the world, and they list some of their biggest failures on their resumes,” Grey says. “Some of them flunked out of school, all of them were fired, and now they’re executives at Google and Tumblr and Amazon.”

It was this sort of “we’re all friends here” attitude that impressed many of those who attended the conference. “Everyone there was so passionate and willing to talk,” says Annie Hsu ’18, a computer science major from Pleasanton, CA. “I walked away with new perspectives and new friends.”

Grace Hopper would no doubt be proud of Vassar’s current track record in recruiting women to the field. While only about 20 percent of computer science majors and PhD candidates nationwide are female, more than 45 percent (36 of 86) of Vassar’s majors are women.

Walter notes Hopper’s legacy played a key role for several of her students who attended this year’s conference. Their expenses were funded through a bequest to the Computer Science Department from former mathematics and computer science prof. Winifred Asprey ’38, who was one of Hopper’s students. “I spoke to Winifred shortly before she died in 2007 and asked her if we could use some of her bequest for the Grace Hopper Conference, and she was thrilled,” she says.

Nguyen says attending the conference was “one of the most empowering experiences of my life,” and she plans to attend another before she graduates. “I had taken a couple of computer classes in high school, but when I got to Vassar I planned to concentrate on math,” she says. “Then I took a course from Jenny last spring. Everyone in the Computer Science Department was friendly and welcoming. They all raved about the Grace Hopper conference, and now I know why.”’

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, October 28, 2015