Grace Hopper Celebration inspires UMSL students majoring in information systems and technology
Prachi Talwar found herself awed as she gazed over the thousands of people – mostly women – packed into the exhibition hall at the Orange County Convention Center earlier this month during the opening keynote at the 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration.
“There were so many women just celebrating each other, encouraging each other, motivating each other, sharing their life experiences and telling them how they got where they are right now,” Talwar said as she thought back to that scene Oct. 2 in Orlando, Florida. “It was amazing.”
Those women were all working – or preparing to work – in careers in technology, a sector of the economy where they often have found themselves overlooked and outnumbered.
Anita Borg and Telle Whitney started the Grace Hopper Celebration – named in honor of the late computer scientist and navy rear admiral – in 1994 to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront.
Organized by nonprofit AnitaB.org, it has grown into the world’s largest gathering of women in technology, held annually every year since 2006.
The conference offers students a unique opportunity to learn and network on a global scale according to University of Missouri–St. Louis Assistant Teaching Professor Jamillah Boyd, recently elected to the board of trustees of AnitaB.org.
“Sharing space with over 25,000 women technologists from around the world broadens the lens of students from underrepresented groups,” Boyd said. “Real-world experiences can be impactful on the trajectory of a student’s career.”
Talwar, a native of India, was one of 15 upperclassmen and graduate students majoring in information systems and technology at UMSL who made the trip to Orlando for the four-day conference this year.
The Department of Information Systems and Technology in the College of Business Administration has been supporting a group of its students to attend each year since 2016 through crowdfunding, which covers their costs, including registration fees, travel to and from the conference and their lodging.
“Students have the opportunity to receive career and technical advice from influential speakers, network with professionals and students from all over the world and participate in a career fair with some of the largest and most technologically innovative companies in the United States,” said Professor Dinesh Mirchandani, who chairs the department. “They come back to UMSL as champions of gender diversity in the IT industry.”
Not all the students who attend are women. This year, Mohamed Langi, Damon Walker, and Andres Hun were part of the group that went to Orlando, and the department has encouraged their participation as it looks to cultivate allies for gender diversity in the field.
All the students had the chance to attend presentations or workshops focused on topics such as artificial intelligence, computer systems engineering, data science, emerging technology, hardware, human computer interaction, interactive media, Internet of Things/wearable tech, open source and software engineering. Others were geared toward professional development and leadership for women in academia, career management and organizational transformation.
“The students observed people working cooperatively,” said Vicki Sauter, professor of information systems. “We hope they will bring that back to the university and then to their ultimate places of business.”
The highlight for many was the job fair, which featured representatives of all the world’s leading technology companies – Amazon, Google, Facebook and eBay, to name a few – along with a multitude of other lesser-known employers.
“All of them were so friendly,” said Ashma Singh, an UMSL senior from Nepal who went armed with a stack of 70 resumes and managed to hand out at least 40 over three days as she floated around the exhibition space, asking questions and gaining insight and encouragement as she plots her future career.
Singh would like to become a data analyst.
“They were there to listen, whether you were a student, graduate or whatever,” she said. “They were there to listen to you. I would say it was a lifetime experience.”
Mirchandani has enjoyed seeing students such as Singh grow from the experience. She and two other members of UMSL’s Grace Hopper contingent – Nicole Gaehle and Sydney Roberson – are part of the committee organizing next month’s UMSL Women’s Hackathon.
“It has been inspiring for us to see our students transform into leaders and champions of social change,” Mirchandani said. “We believe in having a community of learners that is diverse, representative, and welcoming.”
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