Computer science department sponsors students from underrepresented groups to attend conferences

Halligan Hall, home of the Department of Computer Science, is pictured. Lyndon Jackson / The Tufts Daily Archives

The Tufts Department of Computer Science (CS) has been pushing since 2014 to send more computer science students, especially from underrepresented groups, to technology conferences in the Boston area and across the country, according to Kathleen Fisher, department chair and professor of computer science. Fisher explained that the department has subsidized students’ attendance at technology conferences to present them with important networking and experiential learning opportunities.

“We send students to conferences to give them an experience that they can’t get at Tufts,” Fisher said.

Several Tufts students went to Houston, Texas in September for the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual three-day conference that foregrounds the achievements and interests of women in computing.

According to Fisher, the CS department primarily sends students to conferences focused on underrepresented groups in the tech world. Fisher explained that some other diversity-oriented conferences to which Tufts has sent students include the Association for Computing Machinery’s Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, the National Society of Black Engineers’ conferences and the Lesbians Who Tech summit.

“At Tufts, we can’t provide [students with] the experience of not feeling like the minority,” Fisher said. “At these conferences, they can feel a broader sense of community.”

Fisher noted that computer science students who are actively involved in research are also sent to conferences, which often offer student volunteer programs, diversity workshops, networking and other hands-on learning opportunities. According to Fisher, faculty research mentors sometimes provide the funds for students to attend research conferences if the students do not have the means to attend otherwise.

Senior Vera Guttenberger, a CS major, recently attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. According to Guttenberger, the conference featured workshops and talks given by women in the industry, introductory lectures for various fields of technology, discussions about being a woman in tech and large career fairs.

“In terms of looking for jobs, it was really valuable and really overwhelming,” Guttenberger said. “I had exposure to a lot of companies I didn’t know about before, and companies I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”

According to Guttenberger, many students who attended the Grace Hopper conference spent a large portion of their time in career fairs, where they were able to hand out résumés and be interviewed by the companies. Guttenberger explained that a handful of Tufts students who attended in previous years were able to land jobs or internships in the months following the conference.

Aside from the career fair, Guttenberger also attended talks, seminars and workshops on her areas of interest in human-computer interaction and product management. A talk that stood out to her was about an application created for use by autistic children in underprivileged areas. Overall, attending this conference allowed Guttenberger to learn about applications of technology that may not have been covered in a traditional classroom setting.

“In the classroom, you’re learning about concepts and you get projects and assignments. At these conferences, most of your learning is through talking to people, and you get to see how technology is applied in the real world,” Guttenberger said.

Senior Emily Sim, also a CS major, attended the Grace Hopper conference for the second time this year. Last year, her attendance was sponsored by the organizers of the conference themselves. This year, however, she was sponsored by the Tufts CS department.

“The two experiences were distinctly different,” Sim said. “Going with the CS department provided another unique experience because I got to bond with women from this department more.”

In addition, being sponsored by the CS department allowed Sim to attend an event at the Grace Hopper conference dedicated to networking with Tufts alumni, which was organized by Donna Cirelli, the department’s project coordinator.

“Last year, I attended Grace Hopper myself, and what I realized is that a lot of my alums who are now in the industry are now there representing their companies,” Cirelli said.

After reaching out to alumni who have graduated over the 10 years she has worked in the department, Cirelli organized a brunch event which took place during the Grace Hopper conference. She described it as a way to “network offline” — that is, in person, away from the career fairs and in a manner that also gave Tufts CS alumni an opportunity to catch up.

Although Cirelli has not yet arranged alumni events for other major conferences, it is something that the department has considered.

“As a department, we are trying to do more alumni outreach and keep in touch with our alumni more, so this seemed like a no-brainer,” Cirelli said.

Tufts students who attended the brunch, including Sim, were greatly appreciative of this opportunity.

“There [were] a surprising number of [alumni], despite the fact that we are on the smaller side compared to other schools’ CS departments,” Sim said.

Sim explained that students involved in computer science can apply to be sponsored to attend the Grace Hopper conference via an online form. Sim described applying for a sponsorship as a “painless process,” with the only downside being that not everyone who applies can be accepted due to the expense and high demand. According to Cirelli, seniors are normally favored in the applicant pool since they will not get another chance to be sponsored, but all who are interested are encouraged to apply.

According to Sim, significantly more Tufts students were able to attend this year compared to last year. Cirelli noted that the department has also begun offering partial funding for attending such conferences to benefit a greater number of students.

“What’s been happening is that [students] try to buy their own tickets to go to Grace Hopper, and we try to partially fund them [where] they may not otherwise be able to go,” Cirelli said.

As for other conferences, students normally approach department faculty and staff with the details of the specific conferences they want to attend, then apply for ad hoc funding, according to Cirelli.

“In general, I feel like the … department is super supportive of things like this. They care about students and want to open up opportunities like this for them as much as possible,” Guttenberger said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go [to Grace Hopper] without their help.”