It’s difficult to change the world, but even more difficult when you’re lacking the necessary credentials to get through to the people in charge. Often, it doesn’t matter that you have the best ideas if you don’t have the formal education to back them up.
I’ll start off by saying that I am extremely privileged. I am a white, native-born American citizen from a largely middle-class family. I have obtained a high school education and part of a college degree. However, getting an education has been a substantial hurdle for me. I am a blind, epileptic woman prone to speaking my mind when the odds are stacked against me.
When I graduated from high school, I enrolled at Converse College with the idea that I would follow my dual passions for computer science and education. This college said that it allowed students to create their own major if the courses they wanted weren’t organized in a way that would lead to a degree. I wanted to combine the education and computer science majors to create an educational technology major. I approached my assigned advisor in my freshman first semester and was told that “girls don’t do computer science.” I had already won numerous awards for my participation in the computing field in high school, including the White House’s Champions of Change award and the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s Award for Aspirations in Computing, but that wasn’t enough to dissuade my advisor.
I was baffled. Getting into college had been enough of a problem with my health difficulties, but now I was told that I couldn’t study what I wanted, simply because my advisor didn’t believe that my gender was predisposed for it. The college did away with the computer science major not long after this due to low enrollment (read: no students in the major). I felt like I was drifting in a sea of uncertainty. I tried to be a music major, then an English major and did terribly in both. I wanted to be an education major, but I was too far along to declare for that major and I was told that blindness would be a barrier to employment as a teacher. I believed every person who put me down and the flame that used to keep me going was all but an ember.
Flash forward to my third year in college. I was then an English major and failing every course because my eyes and brain could not keep up with the material when I was out every other day with epileptic seizures. I was working part-time in the school food service and it was all I could manage to pull myself out of bed to go to a 5-hour shift making sandwiches. My GPA was in the toilet. I saw no way out. I contemplated suicide. At the end of the spring semester, I was too weak to get out of bed. This navel-gazing effect of failing and scrutinizing my failures until I was sick had literally made me ill. I was asked not to return to Converse due to “unsatisfactory academic progress.”
In August of 2018, I enrolled in online classes at Piedmont Technical College. I wanted to finish my general education requirements at a pace I could stand while working part-time in a store close to my house and volunteering on the accessible technology advisory committee for CSforALL. Once again, I did terribly. I failed every course, because this time, I was too ashamed to ask for help. My experience at Converse made me too scared to approach my professors.
At the same time, CSforALL opened doors for me. I was finally excelling in my chosen field of accessible and educational technology, but hitting walls whenever I applied for internships. I spoke at the CSforALL Summit in Detroit, MI in October alongside leaders in academia and industry. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls interviewed me as an influential young woman in educational technology. AccessComputing out of the University of Washington in Seattle funded me to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing last fall, where I interviewed with Cisco, IBM, Google, and multiple other companies. I had the hope of getting an internship in their disability, accessibility, education or human-computer interaction teams. My references were excellent and I got to final rounds of interviews, but their reason for turning me down was that they wouldn’t take an intern coming from an associate’s degree program. I remember telling Cisco that I was fed up with the classism of tech culture and the valuation they placed on where I was taking general education classes. How was it that I was good enough to work on the accessibility advisory team for a national CS education advocacy organization, but not good enough to debug code for a company?
I am convinced that it’s because of my level of educational attainment and where I had been able to take courses. This is partially a personal failing due to my own fear to reach out for help when I was sinking, but partially a systemic failing that allowed a disabled woman in computer science to fear failure so much that it nearly killed me and my dreams. I want to continue to improve access to computing education for people like me at every level, from K-12 through higher education. No one should have to go through what I did to attain and finish their education and it’s my mission to make sure that no one ever does. While I finish my bachelor’s degree, I’m relying upon groups like CSforALL and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) to push me forward and to make changes in education that disrupt this cycle of failure and fear for women and people with disabilities.
I will continue to move forward. Through my connections with CSforALL and NCWIT, I secured an internship for summer 2019 with Bank of America as a Global Technology Analyst in Charlotte, NC. I believe that my experiences failing are as important as my experiences succeeding, and will allow me to be productive in the Bank of America internship and beyond.
My point in all of this is to say that I know what I need to change in myself and in the academic/tech ecosystem in order to thrive. I will go forward with the knowledge that the world is not out to get me and that there are people and organizations devoted to making sure that women and people with disabilities are well-represented. I know that these groups of people and organizations exist because I’m a part of them and I am my own best advocate.