Forward Together: Women computer science students inspired, recruited at Grace Hopper

Image collage of CS students at Grace Hopper 2018

Mix one part pep rally, one part job interview, a spoonful of networking, a dollop of education, and a dash of frivolity. Simmer in a bucket of camaraderie for three days, and you have the Grace Hopper Celebration.

This fall, 12 women computer science students from Colorado State University received scholarships to join 22,000 participants at the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. Accompanied by computer science faculty Indrakshi Ray and Ross Beveridge, the students traveled to Houston and immersed themselves in the three-day conference featuring career fairs, interviews, networking events and talks from notable women in STEM.

The annual conference, organized by and the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), gave students learning experiences unavailable elsewhere, a sense of community inside and outside CSU, and an appreciation for both the challenges and phenomenal women in technology.

Creating connections and opportunity

Named for the pioneering computer scientist, the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) was created in 1994 as an opportunity for women to share experiences, network, and support one another in a field startlingly lacking in diversity. “It is no mystery that women in computer science face obstacles that men don’t,” said Professor Ross Beveridge. One of the biggest challenges is the feeling of isolation. GHC tackles this head-on by focusing on building a strong, cohesive community.

“Often in classes or when you start out as a freshman, you feel alone and intimidated because most of the other students are men,” said Amber Nolte, a senior studying computer science. “Seeing 20,000 other strong women who are going through the same thing as you is inspiring.”

The conference was peppered with talks from successful women in technology including Anita Hill, Brandeis University law professor, Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, and Emily Chang, anchor and executive producer of Bloomberg Technology.

But the talks benefited students beyond just inspiration. Computer science senior Cassidy Skorczewski found an honors thesis topic.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” said Skorczewski. “One of my conference goals was to attend talks across all areas of computer science and find which ones sparked my interest. I went to a talk on machine learning and immediately knew I wanted to do a thesis involving it.”

The Grace Hopper conference encompasses more than high-profile speakers. Employers recognize the event’s recruiting potential, and over 1000 exhibitors flooded the career fair hall. Representatives across industry, academia, research labs and government all competed for talented candidates in a carnival of recruiting. A separate interview hall buzzed with serious discussions and negotiations. CSU computer science students received interviews and employment offers on the spot from organizations like Goldman Sachs, IBM, Thomson Reuters, Hewlett-Packard, Bloomberg, JPMorgan Chase, Comcast, and Northrop-Grumman, reflecting the broad demand for computer scientists.

The whirlwind of learning and connecting continued outside of conference hours. Companies hosted networking breakfasts and after parties, such as dinner in the Houston Astros stadium, visiting the Houston Zoo, and karaoke at a local club. The conference also ran continual sessions on topics including emerging technology, organizational transformation, products, and a mind-expanding technology showcase and poster display.

Far-reaching impact

The impact of the Grace Hopper Celebration ripples far beyond the three-day event. The CS students and faculty represented the University and department with infectious enthusiasm and professionalism, producing surprising results. Prospective graduate students from top schools like Brown and Northwestern expressed interest in our research and programs in AI, HCI, and cybersecurity. Our well-established online Master of Computer Science program attracted attention, and corporate titans like Google were impressed with the commitment and caliber of our department community. Even parents scouting programs said they want to send their students to CSU.

At its core, the conference helps participants imagine an exciting future and gives them the tools, motivation, and support to get there. “It is a great glimpse of all the opportunities and possibilities in the tech industry,” said Daiana Bilbao, a sophomore studying computer science. “Students will see that the material taught in CS classes is useful in solving real-world problems.”

“It was very educational for me as well,” said Professor Indrakshi Ray “I enjoyed being around our undergrads and understanding their viewpoints and aspirations.”

As the demand for computer science professionals explodes, the Department of Computer Science is committed to addressing the pressing need for women in the field. The department will be implementing the new BRAID program for diversity beginning in fall 2019 in addition to supporting more diversity events like the Grace Hopper Celebration. The department acknowledges the generous support of alumni and donors, which made the student scholarships to Grace Hopper possible.