From Mentee to Mentor to Role Model

Closing out National Mentoring Month and reading so many great mentorship stories, I’ve been thinking about some of the great mentoring relationships I’ve seen throughout my career advocating for young women in tech. The story of Rian and the mentors along her path always makes me smile and gives me a renewed sense of possibility.


Ruthe Farmer, Rian Walker, Dr. Sarah Lee, and NCWIT CFO (and MSU alumna) Katie Ertz at the Silicon South launch event in Jackson, MS in 2017.

I initially learned about Rian Walker in 2013 when she received the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing for the State of Mississippi. I’ve been following her journey ever since and continue to be inspired, both by Rian’s persistence and passion for educational equity, and by the mentors who have supported her along the way.

The Picture of Grit

Rian was a high potential student who very nearly fell through the cracks. Raised by her grandfather since early childhood, Rian’s world fell out from under her when he passed away suddenly in 2009. After his death, she was placed with her biological father, who had never been a consistent part of her life. Her grades, which had been very good in elementary and middle school, began to decline. She missed 86 classes during her freshman year of high school, leaving her father’s home multiple times, and often had no place to live. As a teen she walked and ran all over the coastal cities of Mississippi on her own. Throughout those years she was placed in both a mental health hospital and a youth detention center, but nonetheless, she maintained her interest in computing and taught herself to program in multiple languages. She put her tech skills to use to support herself, purchasing old phones on E-Bay, refurbishing and reselling them.

Rian visiting her grandfather’s resting grave.

A Mentor with a Mission

Her high school counselor, Karen Gifford, took a special interest in Rian and was able to get her registered under the McKinney-Vento Act as an unaccompanied minor. She was the person who encouraged Rian to apply for the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing her final year of high school. Despite being four hours away, Mrs. Gifford and Rian got up in the wee hours that day in March 2013 to drive from the southern coast to the regional award event at Mississippi State University. At the event Rian met Dr. Sarah Lee, a former IT employee at FedEx Corporation, who had recently joined the MSU faculty with a passion for engaging more women on computing pathways.

Dr. Sarah Lee, Rian and her school counselor Mrs. Gifford one year later at the 2014 award ceremony.

A Pivotal Moment

Following the award event, Sarah immediately reached out to Rian to encourage her to apply to MSU to study computer science and helped her get admitted. Just 8 days after that fateful day, I received an NCWIT AspireIT grant application from Rian and Sarah to launch Bulldog Bytes, a program to engage middle school girls in computer science and cyber security. That mini-grant not only launched a multi-year CS education initiative that has served more than 500 Mississippi students, it also created a summer job and place to live for Rian for the few months before starting college.

Rian jumped into her role as a computer science undergrad including research projects, conferences and much more.

Rian’s many adventures as a computer science student including the NCWIT Summit, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the 2013 White House Science Fair where she met Astronaut Leland Melvin and Bill Nye the Science Guy — and President Obama.

From Student to Family

Rian became more than a student for Sarah. She joined the Lee family for holiday celebrations, and Sarah’s family members and friends donated to a scholarship fund for Rian. The first summer and fall, Rian spent hours in Sarah’s office telling stories of her past. Rian needed to tell those stories in order to begin a path towards healing. Sarah listened and offered words of encouragement. Over time the hours they spent together became fewer. Sarah missed Rian when she stopped coming by so often, but knew this was a sign that she was becoming more self-confident in her college career.

Rian with Sarah and her son David Lee Jr. over the years.

Paying It Forward

While at MSU, Rian and Sarah co-founded the Bulldog Bytes computing outreach program. Starting with one camp for middle school girls in 2013, the program has grown to receive national recognition and offers camps for K-12 boys and girls across Mississippi. Bulldog Bytes also offers CS and cybersecurity professional development to K-12 teachers and has offered special programs to the public like a technical workshop for senior citizens and a programming workshop for persons with low vision and blindness.

Rian speaking at a high school classroom in Mississippi — one of her many outreach efforts on behalf of MSU.

A Role Model for Others

Today Rian is a business analyst working on technology used by millions of customers for a major financial institution in Charlotte, NC. As a young professional, she is focused on her job, but she continues to support and encourage other young women coming up in the pipeline - including welcoming the new class of NCWIT Aspirations in Computing members joining her company and community.

She is an ardent advocate of equity in computer science education and an example of the powerful impact mentors and sponsors can have on the trajectory of a young person.

Rian at an MSU football game with the following quote: “I want computer science to be normalized, to be a part of every high school curriculum ,” she explains. “If I were to look past the money and the reality of being an adult, I’d create a ‘pack and go’ curriculum and take it all over Mississippi and to other parts of the country to get as many people, especially girls, into computer science as possible.” — Rian Walker

Rian Walker holds a degree in Software Engineering from Mississippi State University and is employed as a Business Analyst at Bank of America. She was a 2013 NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Regional Winner and National Runner-up. She represented NCWIT at the 2013 White House Science Fair, hosted by President Obama. Reflecting on her role as project leader in the 2013 middle school Bulldog Bytes girl’s camp, she says that one of her most rewarding moments occurred while helping a participant. Rian stated, “She was eager to get my attention to show me that she had completed her project, but she was interested in taking the project further. ….. and it further solidified my reasoning to work in computer science.”

Sarah Lee joined the faculty at Mississippi State University after a 19 year IT career at FedEx. As an associate clinical professor and Assistant Department Head in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, she is co-founder of the Bulldog Bytes program that provides K-12 student outreach and teacher professional development in CS. She is PI for the NSF INCLUDES Mississippi Alliance for Women in Computing, partnering with stakeholders to engage and mentor girls and women on computing pathways. She serves on the board of directors for the Mississippi Coding Academies, an emerging workforce development program.