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The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing inspires the current generation of aspiring scientists

Asia Bryant ’14, Vivian Chen ’15, and Stephanie Zhu ’16 have a lot in common. None of them planned to take a computer science class when they came to Vassar, but all three of them are now computer science majors—and Bryant has landed a job starting next spring writing software for AT&T.

Allyson Pemberton '15 (left), Associate Computer Science Professor Jennifer Walter, and Asia Bryant '14, took part in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

What happened? Each of them decided, more or less on a whim, to take an introductory computer science course taught by associate professor Jennifer Walter, and all three say they were captivated by their teacher’s energy and enthusiasm. “A lot of my early software codes needed debugging,” Bryant says, “but Jenny made solving these problems easy and fun. She has a way of letting me know I can do it.”

Bryant, Chen, and Zhu all say their interest in pursuing a career in the field was enhanced after Walter helped them and three other Vassar students secure scholarships last fall to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, billed as the largest annual gathering of women in science. The event took place October 2 through 5 in Minneapolis, Minn.

Launched in 1994 and named after noted physicist Grace Hopper ’28, the conference brings college students together with top female scientists at colleges and universities and in private industry from around the world. It was during last fall’s conference that Bryant first met recruiters from AT&T. But she says her job search was only a small part of her experience at the conference. “I’d heard great things about the Grace Hopper conference from other Vassar students, and when I experienced it for myself, it was truly empowering,” she says.

Walter says it’s become increasingly important for her to bring students to the conference because the percentage of women in computing and other technical fields has been dwindling in the past decade. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Commerce, fewer than 25 percent of U.S. employees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are women. Since 2002, Walter has brought a total of 38 students to the conference.

Chen, a junior from Denver, Colo., who had planned to major in economics or political science, calls her experience at the Grace Hopper conference “life-changing—it helped me see my future.” She’s considering accepting an internship this summer for a firm she learned about at the conference.

Zhu, a sophomore from Marlboro, N.J., says she had planned to major in math but changed her mind a few weeks after she enrolled in her first computer science class. “I love how the field has so many applications,” she says. “It’s challenging; it allows you to be analytical and creative.”

Walter says she always enjoys watching her students see their potential career paths open up when they attend the Grace Hopper conference. All of the students she has taken to the conference who have graduated are currently either working in the field or are in graduate school. “It’s been exciting to see them blossom, to see them succeed in what is a non-traditional field for women,” she says. “I’m really proud of them.”

—Larry Hertz

--Photos by John Abbott

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, January 8, 2014