Black History Month Celebration Features Panel of Computer Scientists

March 30, 2020

By Erica Yee

A panel of Khoury College professors and graduate students recently shared their experiences in tech—offering encouraging stories and recommendations for students finding their way as computer scientists at the college’s inaugural Black History Month celebration.

Designed and moderated by Ashley Armand, academic advisor in the Align program, the February event made space for the community to come together to speak on race, gender, and ethnicity in the field of computer science.

Drawing from his life experience as an African-American man with doctoral degrees in both computer science and ministry, panelist Keith Bagley gave advice for dealing with imposter syndrome.

“Part of it is being confident in our own identity,” said Bagley, an associate clinical professor and the program director of Align Boston. “When people say ‘I’m colorblind,’ that erases who I am. So one thing we have to be comfortable with is who we are. If we’re not comfortable with our own identity, then someone else will speak into your life and tell you who you are.”

For panelist Walter Rweyemamu, Bagley’s words rang true. He’s a third-year cybersecurity Ph.D. student who grew up in Tanzania, and it took a long time after he arrived in the United States to figure out the meaning of racial bias. He often rationalized negative interactions, telling himself the other person was just distracted when they seemingly ignored or slighted him.

“You can only put your best foot forward. Even if somebody doesn’t reciprocate it, that doesn’t change my character,” Rweyemamu said. “It changes my action at the moment, but it doesn’t change who I am.”

Panelists as Mentors and Allies: “We have a voice”

Panelist Everlyne Kimani, a fifth-year computer science Ph.D. student, spoke about tackling bias as well. She described attending hackathons and finding herself the only woman in her group. Those situations made Kimani more attuned to noticing when others don’t give appropriate credit for her ideas, leading her to speak up when the same happens for others.

“Whenever something happens that captures my attention, I know who’s the correct person to attribute an idea to,” she explained. “I don’t want to be perceived as not thinking that person can contribute a great idea.”

Panelist Alden Jackson, an associate clinical professor, also emphasized the importance of allies. He said that everyone can be an ally — actions like giving subtle corrections and speaking up in meetings can help ensure others aren’t overlooked.

“Offering that pathway is a way to also be actively supporting,” he challenged the audience. “When we’re in our research groups here, or in our study groups, or when we leave to go to co-op or we go to industry, we all have a voice at the table and it’s important for us to claim it.”

While each panelist offered unique perspectives, their remarks resonated with each other and the audience. Sometimes, panelists laughed if a point was made with humor. Often, they nodded in quiet agreement.

That collaboration and camaraderie is exactly what Armand intended in organizing the event. She said because diversity in tech is so important, having spaces for students and faculty to validate each other’s experiences is critical.

“It was truly inspiring to hear from incredibly gifted and experienced computer scientists,” Armand said. “They touched upon navigating imposter syndrome and the complex intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality in their work in a profoundly moving, supportive, and bold way.”

Importance of Community: “Surround yourself”

One attendee, Align computer science master’s student Joviane Bellegarde, felt inspired by the experiences and thoughts shared by the panelists.

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong in computer science, especially when it gets hard,” Bellegarde said. “It was encouraging to listen to the panelists share their thoughts and experiences. This uplifting event served as a reminder that I’m not the only one.”

Rweyemamu also reflected on his experience in Tanzania and as an immigrant compared to his American-born friends.

“It hurts more, I think, growing up here and having to live your whole life in this system of, ‘Is this a bias or is it not?’—I can’t even imagine,” he said thoughtfully. “It certainly helps to know yourself and to have people who can support that knowledge, character and person.”

To help find that community, Bagley had some parting advice for the audience: Be open to allies who will help affirm and push them in a positive direction.

“When you surround yourself with a community who are allies but are also willing to challenge your assumptions and push you off your laurels, I think you’re in a good spot to be able to push off that imposter syndrome,” Bagley said.