The University of New Orleans community along with several technology industry partners rallied together this fall to send eight female computer science students to the 2016 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.
Students AmbyrShae Jarrell, Kristen Maus, Lily Stricklin, Banan Ibrahim, Aileen Do, Jeanne Vu and Siobhan O'Connell were chosen to travel to the Oct. 19-21 conference in Houston based on their academics and leadership, thanks to more than $11,000 in donations that poured in through an online fundraising campaign. The eighth student, Urmila Sharma, attended the conference as part of UNO’s Women in Computer Science Scholarship, an award made possible by alumna Sabrina Farmer, a 1995 computer science graduate who works at Google.
The Grace Hopper conference boasts prestigious sponsorships from tech giants like GE Digital and Google, and has recently seen rapid growth, with attendance jumping from 4,500 in 2013 to over 15,000 in 2016. The conference offers professional development workshops, presentations on a variety of cutting-edge technology topics, an open source day, a career fair, student poster sessions, interview sessions and plenty of networking opportunities.
"Many female leaders are present at the conference to remind women that they can also succeed no matter the circumstances," said AmbyrShae Jarrell, a senior computer science major.
With the event's booming industry buy-in, recent proliferation and its intention aimed at increasing women's involvement and presence in technology, it is critical that UNO's students are able to attend, said Mahdi Abdelguerfi, UNO’s computer science chair. Information technology jobs are one of the fastest growing sectors in Louisiana, with Forbes recently naming New Orleans the number one metro area for IT job growth. There is a desperate need for more software developers in NOLA, and one avenue to grow that market is by encouraging more women to enter the tech sector.
"Attending GHC expanded and improved my skill set, both technically and professionally," said junior Aileen Do. "I feel much more confident going into the field of computer science."
UNO’s Department of Computer Science is the only computer science program in the New Orleans area that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET), offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
University leaders say they are determined to do what they can to increase the numbers of women entering technology fields.
“Sending our students to events such as the Grace Hopper Conference is part of an overall effort by the department to increase female enrollment,” Abdelguerfi, said. “While overall undergraduate enrollment has risen over eighty percent over the last four years, female enrollment has doubled in the same period."
The progress is encouraging, said Karen Thomas, associate dean of STEM outreach, recruitment, and retention at UNO, but there remains a great deal of work to be done to narrow the large gender gap in the technology fields. That’s why the University launched the online fundraising campaign to help support UNO’s strongest female computer science students at the Grace Hopper event.
In 2015, UNO sent five students to the Grace Hopper conference. When they came back, they were motivated to establish a stronger female tech community and presence on UNO's campus. Those students went on to found a new student organization, the Association for Computing Machinery - Women Chapter (ACM-W), which now volunteers in a number of different tech outreach programs, including Bring your Daughter to Hack Day and a Girl’s Day Out program designed to introduce young students to technology-related careers, activities and professionals.
"The GHC helps shape students into leaders," said Ted Holmberg, industry liaison for the computer science department. “The department would certainly like to see this enthusiasm continue by sending more students in the future."
Sophomore Lily Stricklin said the conference was invigorating, personally and professionally. “I was moved by the enthusiasm and inspiring tone of the conference,” she said. “It made me feel like I could do anything."
This year, UNO’s crowdfunding campaign raised more than $11,000—$4,000 more than the original fundraising goal—to cover the costs of sending the seven students to the conference. The funding directly supported the students’ participation in the conference, including registration fees, travel, hotel and meals and was made possible through the generous donations of university members, faculty/staff members, alumni, industry partners and even friends and family. In addition to helping students attend the conference this year, it built the foundation for additional students to attend in 2017.