WiCS’ Plans For The Year

Womxn in Computer Science (WiCS) President Rediet Bekele (CC ’21) talks about the organization’s plans to help members and its new initiatives for the year. She takes a positive look at the move to virtual classes and online events and sees it as an opportunity to reach even more people and help members navigate this school year. 

Rediet Bekele

Below, Bekele reflects on the changes this year and how WiCS will help build a sense of community for its members. 

How do you see the year unfolding for WiCS?
We are already in the works for Fall events that will allow our members to participate virtually. We started holding General Body meetings over the summer and it will continue virtually into the academic year. We are hoping that through these meetings we can instill the feeling of community that is currently much needed.

We plan to grow the number of members that join our club by onboarding early. WiCS’ community chairs are going to be working closely with incoming first-year students to create a channel with WiCS. They want students to use this channel to help navigate on-campus and virtual resources. Workshops on how to communicate with TAs and professors and lightning talks about research projects on campus are just some of the events we are organizing to help students understand course-related and research opportunities that are made available to them.  

What do you hope to achieve this year as president?
As an international student myself, I want to work on more initiatives that will help international students navigate the CS community at Columbia and use the resources available to them to succeed in the field. This will include organizing professional development opportunities, workshops on understanding work authorization, and making the most out of health and course-related resources on campus. 

Within the club, I hope to make the transition to the coming academic year as smooth as possible on everyone on the board. We are anticipating the majority of our correspondence to be remote this coming year so I want to make sure that effective virtual communications still occur and that we are able to continue working with all of our members. It will definitely be a learning curve for all of us as the virtual format is truly a unique situation, but WICS’ amazing board members and general body are sure to make it an effortless transition. 

How about the yearly events and activities that WiCs hosts, will any of those push through?
Definitely! Just as we have done in previous years, we are sponsoring students attending the Grace Hopper Conference. This year, WiCS is a bronze level academic sponsor for the conference and we are incredibly excited to be sponsoring 30 women to attend the virtual conference in October!

DivHacks is also virtually taking place this fall from October 23 -25. Our diversity chairs have been working hard to make the fifth annual DivHacks hackathon the best one to date. The theme for this year’s hackathon is Encoding Justice. We encourage everyone to check out the DivHacks website and register for the event. 

We also have numerous events coming up with our general body members such as virtual professor lunches, mock interview sessions to help our students during the recruitment season, and 1:1 coffee chats with engineers from our sponsor companies. 

We can’t wait for students to take part in all of our events! 

How can students reach out to WiCS and find out more about your programs?
A great way to keep up with our events is to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Students can subscribe through the link on our website. They can also reach out to us on our Facebook page and Instagram channel

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Is there anything else you think people should know?
In light of current issues, from a pandemic that has closed the doors of our campus to heightened tension and protests against racial inequality, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed, furious, and confused. We want to let everyone know that WiCS is here to serve not only the CS community but the entire Columbia and Barnard student community. We want to keep open lines of communications so that anyone can reach out to us and we would be happy to listen, provide resources, or support.

Making the Case for More Women in Computer Science

A new grant supports and expands Columbia’s proven track record for inclusivity.

 

There has been an explosion of interest from undergraduate women across Columbia and Barnard who are choosing to major in computer science (CS). In 2019, 39.5% of 1,268 CS declared majors were women (of 1,212 reporting gender across SEAS, Columbia College, General Studies, and Barnard). The CS major is the second largest at Columbia and still growing. This is the result of the centrality of computing to our lives today, as well as the Computer Science department’s initiatives over the past decade to encourage students to explore CS and to major or minor in CS.

In recognition of the high success rate in attracting and retaining women in Computer Science and the potential to do even more, Columbia is part of the first cohort to receive a grant from Northeastern University’s Center for Inclusive Computing. The Center partners with “nonprofit colleges and universities with large computing programs (200 graduates or more per year) to implement evidence-based practices that support the recruitment, enrollment, and graduation of historically underrepresented groups majoring in computing.”

The grant will fund several new joint initiatives as well as expand existing ones that support Columbia Engineering’s and Barnard’s overarching objectives to attract and retain women in introductory CS classes, continuing to improve the climate for diversity across the University’s CS community with the goal of reaching gender parity.

“The department’s programs run by our faculty and students have helped keep women and underrepresented minorities in our introductory classes,” said Julia Hirschberg, the Percy K. and Vida L. W. Hudson Professor of Computer Science. Hirschberg has been advocating for women in CS since she started at Bell Labs in the 1980s. “We are really delighted at how diverse our major has become.”

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Columbia has come a long way to become one of the top schools in the US with a high percentage of women in CS. Ten years ago, the percentage of females majoring in computer science was just 8% percent. Columbia and Barnard have worked closely together to make CS more accessible to students with little to no CS background, which disproportionately includes  women and underrepresented minorities. The School has been able to retain women in its introductory classes with considerable success through the following initiatives:

  • The development of COMS 1004 Lab, in which students with little programming experience in the introductory CS course get help practicing coding
  • The Emerging Scholars Program in which students with little CS background attend weekly sessions to discuss CS as problem-solving
  • The Womxn in Computer Science group, a network for women undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff; the group promotes interaction on academic, social, and professional issues
  • The Application Development Initiative which organizes hackathons and other events
  • The development of COMS 1002 Computing in Context, in which students planning other majors can get basic CS training to use on interdisciplinary problems; this course has had an unanticipated effect—leading to an increased number of students with no CS background deciding to major in CS

“My introduction to CS was welcoming, especially for students like me who do not have a CS background,” said Desu Imudia, a second-year student from Columbia College. As an African American woman, she says there is little representation in the School and sees the value of the labs for students to learn in groups and build confidence. Imudia plans to declare CS as her major and to continue work as a teaching assistant. She added, “Even though I know a lot now, I am no expert so I think more labs in addition to courses will be really helpful for students.”

Barnard has gone from just one graduating CS major in 2013 to 33 in 2019—CS is now one of Barnard’s 10 most popular majors. In 2019, Barnard hired its first CS faculty as part of a comprehensive plan to expand its focus on CS and fully meet students’ needs, as well as to bring computing education to Barnard students outside the CS major, potentially attracting more of them to major or minor in CS or newly developed joint programs.

Rebecca Wright, Druckenmiller Professor of Computer Science at Barnard College and director of the Vagelos Computational Science Center, said, “This is an extremely exciting time for CS at Barnard. In addition to continuing to collaborate with Columbia, we also have the opportunity to explore new models and new kinds of computing curriculum.”

As part of the project, Barnard will develop a Computing Fellows program. Led by the new Vagelos Computational Science Center at Barnard, the Computing Fellows program will support faculty to incorporate computational projects into their courses and provide ongoing support to faculty and students in those courses. Specifically, a number of undergraduates each year will be hired and trained as computing fellows to work with faculty in departments across Barnard and their students.

At Columbia Engineering, the COMS 1004 Lab, Emerging Scholars Program, and Computing in Context programs will continue under the grant, with additional teaching assistants and PhD students expected to be hired. Hirschberg will lead the project and manage the Computing in Context, the 1004 Lab, and the ESP initiatives in collaboration with Adam Cannon and Paul Blaer, lecturers in discipline at Columbia Engineering.

At Barnard, Wright will spearhead the development and execution of the Computing Fellows program and will collaborate with the rest of the team across all of the initiatives.

“We are so grateful to Northeastern University’s  Center for Inclusive Computing for helping us to expand the programs which have so far proven so successful in retaining a diverse group of CS majors,” said Hirschberg.

Rebecca Wright Receives the ACM-SIGACT Distinguished Service Award

Rebecca Wright, the director of Barnard’s CS program, is a recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Service Award for her 11-year leadership of DIMACS, particularly in continuing and expanding the research and educational missions of DIMACS, for promoting diversity in computer science, and for using her expertise in privacy and security to help shape public policy on a national level.

WiCS at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration

Women technologists from around the world gathered in Houston, Texas to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration. Columbia’s Womxn in Computer Science (WiCS) share how it was to be part of the event that celebrates and promotes women in technology.

Xiao Lim

My favorite part about Grace Hopper was the raw experience of walking into the opening keynote and seeing over 20,000 women in tech. I think it’s easy to get bogged down by what we perceive as the status quo, but going to Grace Hopper reminded me that what is “normal” can and will always change. I can’t wait to see the future built by these women, and am proud to know that I am part of the change I want to see.

Lucille Sui

My favorite part about attending Grace Hopper was meeting so many amazing and inspirational women and also getting closer with the women I came with from Columbia! I learned a lot about the different paths in life that you can pursue with a computer science degree, from working on the Sims game to working on the tech enabled side of Home Depot. I would encourage everyone to attend this event because it’s an amazing way to meet other women in the field and understand the horizon of limitless potential you have as a woman in tech.

Kara Schechtman

Attending Grace Hopper is always such a meaningful experience as a woman in technology. It was my second time attending the conference, and both years I’ve been heartened to see the big crowds of women (and allies!) at the conference.

In addition to being in a woman-dominated space, it is really exciting to see that women are passionate about fixing many of tech’s problems; there were long lines for speakers like Joy Boulamwini who tackles bias in algorithms. For me, the most memorable experience was attending a talk given by Anita Hill the day after Christine Blasey-Ford’s hearing. Her words of advice to not give up on creating positive change were ones I really needed to hear that day. I hope I’ll be able to attend the conference for many years to come!

Madeline Wu

I had no idea what to expect from my first Grace Hopper experience, but was so glad I got to do it with fellow Barnard/Columbia seniors who also attended GHC through the WiCS sponsorship. Being at a conference with 25,000+ women in computer science is simultaneously inspiring and overwhelming, so I appreciated having other WiCS students to exchange tips with on the best giveaways, share what workshops we were attending, and to wish each other luck on interviews.

Some of my closest friends in college are fellow Barnard CS seniors who attended GHC with me, and throughout our three days in Houston we connected with women in tech from all backgrounds and interests, learned how to play poker with Palantir, enjoyed a mac and cheese themed Snapchat party, and tried all the Tex-Mex we could find. I went into this semester feeling a little burnt out, but seeing so many women in CS in one place and seeing how much companies are investing in women in tech re-motivated and inspired me to give everything my best effort senior year. Despite the giveaways and opportunities that GHC is most known for, I am most grateful that I got to experience GHC’s unparalleled sense of community with women who have been integral to my college journey!

Vivian Shen

I loved going to Grace Hopper because for once in my life, I was in an environment where womxn greatly outnumbered men at a giant, respected tech conference. As students, we try to carve out spaces for womxn in tech with our incredible clubs (Girls Who Code, Womxn in Computer Science, etc.), who hold various talks and gatherings and workshops. However, the experience is completely different when you are surrounded by thousands and thousands of womxn rather than just a handful, and these womxn come from all the corners of the globe to support each other in their technical pursuits. Not once during the week did I feel like I was talked down upon or “mansplained,” and it truly felt like every person I talked to, be it employer or peer, wanted me to succeed (and I wanted them to as well!). Sure, one of the biggest benefits of the Grace Hopper Conference is its giant career fair, where many students are able to find job offer(s).

However, I felt like the companies weren’t just there to find talented womxn engineers – they were also trying to prove that their company is inclusive and welcoming of diversity. It may seem strange to put it that way, but I believe that as these companies work to outdo each other in terms of inclusivity, they really do create better atmospheres for their workers. I’m more than happy to let companies show off all of their equity initiatives, especially when they are then receptive to feedback when we sometimes say that these initiatives aren’t doing enough.

At the conference, there were 50+ students from Columbia/Barnard, who all got sponsored in separate ways. I was lucky enough to receive a Microsoft scholarship out of the blue (I have had no prior connection with that company), so my main piece of advice to students who would like to attend GHC in the future is just to apply, apply, apply! Because it is such a renown conference, there are tons and tons of companies who offer sponsorship to those with a good enough reason to want to go, and filling out many applications increases your chances of getting funded by one of these. When it hits June, start looking for GHC scholarships on Google (I know it’s early, but trust me, you want to keep an eye on those things). Then, when you get in, I’m sure you’ll have a whole crowd of Barnumbia womxn (and peers from all over) who will be excited to attend and support you at the conference.