As one of just a handful of Latina computer science majors, Sofia Carrillo ’19 often feels the weight of representing an entire culture when she speaks in class.
But at the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, which Carrillo attended Sept. 19-22 in Orlando, Florida, with more than 50 other students, faculty and staff from Computing and Information Science (CIS), some of that weight lifted.
“I’m not the only person in the room wearing a badge, ‘Mexican girl in tech.’ I don’t feel the pressure of representing my culture poorly or incorrectly,” said Carrillo, co-president of the two-year-old group Underrepresented Minorities in Computing at Cornell (URMC). “Being surrounded by so many people who are underrepresented in tech is really awesome and empowering, because that’s not usually the case.”
For CIS, the Tapia conference was an opportunity to help students who may feel isolated to connect with colleagues and grow, and part of ongoing efforts to diversify its students and faculty. Nearly 11 percent of Cornell’s computer science majors are underrepresented minorities, compared with 9.6 percent in 2017.
“We’ve noticed that when our students go to this conference, it helps to reduce or eliminate those feelings of isolation, the feeling that you’re the only underrepresented minority in all of computer science in all of the world,” said Hakim Weatherspoon, associate professor of computer science, who led Cornell’s contingent to the conference. “As a result, it helps to boost confidence, it creates relationships and it improves their performance.”
Cornell is also partnering in the new FLIP Alliance (Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate), an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to diversify tenure-track faculty. FLIP will focus on encouraging effective diversity recruitment among the 11 universities, including Cornell, that supply about half the computer science faculty at the nation’s top schools.
Changes in tactics helped Cornell recruit a relatively diverse cohort of doctoral students this spring, admitting seven underrepresented minorities and 21 women out of an incoming class of 59.
In a Twitter thread that went viral, David Bindel, associate professor of computer science, who served as his department’s Ph.D. admissions chair, described some of these new efforts. They included recruitment at Tapia and at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, and robust outreach to groups such as the McNair Scholars Program – which supports underrepresented students – and Black in AI, an organization co-founded by Cornell doctoral student Rediet Abebe. In 2017, CIS also helped create a pre-doctoral summer school with the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems and the University of Maryland, exposing a diverse group of rising seniors to cutting-edge research.
As a result, Cornell selected its largest-ever class of Ph.D. students from a pool of 1,300 applicants, up from 850 the year before.
“I think one of the things that helped us the most is the students we accepted showed up for visit day and they saw each other,” Bindel said. “I didn’t come up with new ideas; I stole ideas that seemed to be working for other people. It all came together much better than I expected.”
The increased diversity is changing the culture in computer science at Cornell, said Weatherspoon, who also runs SoNIC, a summer workshop aimed at encouraging minority engineering students to pursue careers in academia. Weatherspoon is Cornell’s representative to the FLIP Alliance, which held a meeting at the Tapia conference.
CIS paid most of the expenses for the 38 undergraduates, seven graduate students, four faculty members and three staff members to attend Tapia – a major investment in continuing to diversify computer science study at Cornell. Cornell Engineering, the computer and information science departments and the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives also contributed funding.
“We’re really trying to create a pipeline of people who can lift each other up and help each other out,” Weatherspoon said. “There’s still a long way to go, but we’re doing quite a bit so people don’t feel isolated. The entire department culture is changing so it’s a better environment to be in, and it’s very cool to be part of that change.”