Creating a Sense of Community

Utsa Santosh, center, with four elementary-age girls gathered around a laptop.
Utsa Santosh (center). Credit: Justin Derato. Click image to download hi-res version.
University of Maryland freshman computer science major Utsa Santhosh feels like she and the Brendan Iribe Center have grown up together. Santhosh had just finished her third year in UMD's CompSciConnect summer camp for middle school students when Brendan Iribe made his lead gift for the new building.

Throughout high school, Santhosh returned to UMD as a teaching assistant for the summer camp, which encourages young girls to explore computer science.

"Every year, I would come back and see the building progress. It's like the center was growing up as I did," Santhosh said.

As the Department of Computer Science's new home took shape, so did the community of computing women and girls around Santhosh.

"In high school, I made friends with a lot of the college students," Santhosh said. "Hearing their experiences really made me excited, not only to come to Maryland but also to major in comp sci. Now, finally I'm a freshman, and it's really exciting to be one of the first students in the new building. I'm so inspired by all the collaborative work spaces and the innovative initiatives going on here."

The initiative closest to her heart may be the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing. Supported by a new $1 million gift from Iribe, the initiative will build on the success of the Maryland Center for Women in Computing (MCWIC) by creating programs to encourage students from all genders, backgrounds and underrepresented populations. In addition to after-school programs and summer camps for elementary through high school students, the initiative will cultivate and retain a diverse community of computer science majors through tutoring, computing-related student organizations, a computer science inclusion speaker seminar series, and funding for students to attend computing conferences.

"Increasing diversity in computer science is so important for many reasons," said Jandelyn Plane, the new initiative's director and a principal lecturer in the Department of Computer Science. "A critical step in building diversity is creating a sense of community. I think it makes a big difference for underrepresented groups to see college students and professionals like themselves succeeding in the field."

Plane founded MCWIC in 2014 as an outgrowth of CompSciConnect, which has expanded since Santhosh joined as a sixth grader in 2011. Today, MCWIC hosts a variety of camps, conferences, workshops, research opportunities and partnerships. Over the last five years, MCWIC's programming has helped to double the number of female undergraduates in the department. With 650 women majoring in computer science, UMD is home to one of the largest populations of women computer scientists in the country.

"Without a doubt, I am a UMD computer science student because of CompSciConnect and MCWIC," Santhosh said. "I know firsthand how successful these efforts are. In high school, I was the only girl in my comp sci class, but I knew that there were people like me out there and they had made it through and were doing a lot of cool things."

Like MCWIC, the new Iribe Initiative will serve as a pipeline to bring young people into computer science and support them through their college careers. MCWIC will continue to operate as a home for women in computing, but the new initiative will serve as an umbrella entity with an expanded mission to support students from all backgrounds.

"Computers are needed for nearly everything we do, so it's really important for people with different mindsets to come together and collaborate," Santhosh said, adding that she can't wait to see the next crop of summer campers donning virtual reality headsets. "It's amazing to watch them doing things with technology that didn't even exist a few years ago and most people still don't even have access to."

Written by Kimbra Cutlip

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This article was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Odyssey magazine. To read other stories from that issue, please visit go.umd.edu/odyssey.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $200 million.