From Summer Camper to Hackathon Organizer, Computer Science Major Utsa Santhosh Finds Her Home at UMD

Seven years ago, Santhosh joined a UMD summer camp for girls in computing, now she’s on the path to a career in computer science

Becoming a leader in any field takes confidence. Doing it as a woman in a field dominated by men takes confidence and a lot of support. 

Freshman computer science major Utsa Santhosh, who got her start in computing as a CompSciConnect camper, is on the organizing committee for Bitcamp 2019. Image credit: Justin Derato (Click image to download hi-res version)

University of Maryland freshman computer science major Utsa Santhosh found that support through the Maryland Center for Women in Computing (MCWIC). The sense of belonging she gained from involvement with MCWIC gave her the confidence to join the organizing committee for Bitcamp, UMD’s Major League Hackathon.

This weekend, as roughly 1,200 hackers descend on the Xfinity Center with their laptops and sleeping bags, Santhosh will be there greeting them and ushering them through 36 hours of high-energy creative thinking and building. Santhosh is by no means the only female on the organizing committee for Bitcamp, but her path to computer science exemplifies the importance of programs designed to attract and retain women and underrepresented students to the field. 

Her first experience with computing came in middle school when Santhosh’s parents signed her up for the first CompSciConnect, a UMD summer camp aimed at getting girls excited about computing.

“The summer camps were the perfect intro for me,” Santhosh said. “In middle school, when no one really did much with computers, I had already gotten a foundation. But it wasn’t just something I did in the summer and forgot. There were so many other opportunities to be involved throughout the year that it kept me engaged, and it just kept getting cooler as we went on.” 

After aging out of CompSciConnect, Santhosh became a volunteer teaching assistant for the summer camp and returned to UMD throughout high school. By then, the university had launched MCWIC, which provides a variety of computing-related opportunities for students at UMD and local K-12 schools. In her junior and senior years, Santhosh received the National Center for Women and Information Technology aspirations award, at a ceremony hosted by MCWIC.

After six years of participating in computer science events and activities at UMD, Santhosh was steeped in a community that made her feel at home in a computing environment. 

“By the time I was ready to apply to colleges, I genuinely couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” she said. “I’m a Maryland CompSci major because of CompSciConnect and MCWIC.” 

Santhosh now works as an ambassador for the program. She brings her passion and enthusiasm to other girls who may one day choose to study computer science. 

Freshman computer science major Utsa Santhosh helps participants in a weekend computing event hosted by the Maryland Center for Women in Computing. Image credit: Justin Derato (Click image to download hi-res version)

It is fitting then that Santhosh’s first year at UMD coincides with the launching of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing, which will expand on the successes of MCWIC by offering programs for students of all backgrounds. Established through a new $1 million gift from Brendan Iribe (ee-REEB’), UMD alumnus and co-founder of the virtual reality company Oculus, the initiative aims to increase diversity and foster a stronger environment of inclusion in computer science at UMD. 

The new initiative will serve as an umbrella over MCWIC and be directed by MCWIC founder Jandelyn Plane, a principal lecturer in the Department of Computer Science. Both MCWIC and the Iribe Initiative will be housed in the university’s new Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering. 

Programming offered by the new initiative will include tutoring for required introductory computer science classes, computing-related student organization activities, a computer science inclusion speaker seminar series and funding to attend computing conferences. The initiative will also support after-school programs and summer camps for elementary through high school students from all backgrounds. 

“I know this new diversity initiative will be a success, because I’ve seen how effective MCWIC is,” Santhosh said. “There are so many events where you can meet other students and mentors that show you how much you can do with computer science. That really drew me in, and made me excited to learn more about computing.” 

After getting a taste of programming in CompSciConnect, Santhosh took a coding class in high school. She was one of only two girls in the course, but halfway through the year, the other girl dropped the class. By then, Santhosh had fallen in love with Java and wouldn’t be deterred. Her experiences at UMD gave her the confidence to persevere through this challenging situation.

As an ambassador for Maryland Center for Women in Computing, Freshman computer science major Utsa Santhosh believes building community among underrepresented groups can help diversify the field of computer science. Image credit: Justin Derato (Click image to download hi-res version)

“At my high school, computing was just a guy thing,” she said. “But I knew, because of all the MCWIC events, that there was a community of women in technology. I knew I wasn’t alone, which I wouldn’t have known otherwise.” 

As a Terp freshman, Santhosh is still learning about the career options open to a computer science major, but she made the Dean’s list in her first semester and is off to a good start. So far, she is interested in data analysis and technology applications in the financial sector. In early April, she went to a conference at Bank of America that introduced her to the banking industry’s computer science needs and opportunities. 

Meanwhile, she’s getting some real-world experience as the finance director for Technica—UMD’s all-women hackathon that occurs every fall. She has already started working on budgets and logistics for the 2019 event.

Bringing nearly 900 high school and college students to UMD for two days of hacking, creating and sharing, Technica is among the largest all-women and non-binary hackathons in the country.

“It’s a really inspiring event,” Santhosh said. “I’m excited to be part of something that brings so many young women and girls together in one place to explore new ideas with the power of computer technology.”

Santhosh helped out at Technica last fall as a member of the event operations team, and she said one of the highlights of the weekend was running into some of the girls who had been in CompSciConnect when she was a teaching assistant. 

“They were just tiny kids, and they were there coding alongside college students,” she said. “I realized it was like the completion of a circle. They were at their first hackathon, finishing projects I had helped them start.” 

Santhosh is likely to see some of her former campers again next year, and just like the many young women she had looked up to when she was their age, Santhosh will be an inspiration and a sign of what their future might hold. But for now, her focus is on this weekend and Bitcamp. It will be the first time Santhosh has attended such a large hackathon. 

“I’m excited to see how this large-scale operation comes together,” she said. “It’s been a lot of work behind the scenes for a very long time, and there are a lot of moving parts, so it’s going to be really fun to see it all finally in action at this fantastic hackathon.”

Written by Kimbra Cutlip

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 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.