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Hakim Weatherspoon, left, associate professor of computer science, helps students at the SoNIC summer workshop.

SoNIC program empowers diverse CS students

Jean Marie Uwimana grew up in Zimbabwe as a refugee whose parents fled violence in Rwanda. He earned a full scholarship to the University of Southern Indiana, where he’s often the only black student in his computer science classes.

“All my life I was kind of an outsider,” said Uwimana, a rising senior and one of 27 participants in Cornell’s SoNIC summer workshop, which brought underrepresented computer science students to Ithaca June 17-21 to learn about cloud computing and networks, with the goal of encouraging them to pursue Ph.D.s.

Twenty-seven students attended the 2019 SoNIC summer workshop, which aims to encourage underrepresented computer science students to pursue advanced degrees.

“I feel empowered now – I’m feeling valued,” he said. “Having the opportunity to be here with other students from underrepresented groups, it motivates me. It gives me the confidence that I can actually do it if I put my mind to it.”

Now in its ninth year, SoNIC – which stands for Software Defined Network Interface – has exposed hundreds of minority students from across the country to the frontiers of computer science, as well as the prerequisites and rewards of advanced degrees. Several former participants have pursued Ph.D.s; two are now professors.

The program has not only boosted the ranks of underrepresented students in Ph.D. programs nationwide, it has raised Cornell’s profile as a place where minority students can find a welcoming community.

“The word has gotten out that Cornell is the place to be if you want to get a Ph.D. in computer science, and it’s friendly to underrepresented minorities – friendly meaning not only that people are nice, but there are other people here from underrepresented backgrounds,” said Hakim Weatherspoon, associate professor of computer science, who founded the program in 2010 in partnership with Howard University. “The altruistic goal is to get them into any Ph.D. program, but the selfish goal is to get them to come to Cornell.”

In 2018, 1.4% of doctoral degrees in computer science at U.S. colleges and universities – and fewer than 6% of all doctoral degrees – were awarded to African American students, according to the Computing Research Association’s Taulbee Survey. Efforts such as SoNIC are paying off at Cornell, which has made significant gains in the numbers of minority doctoral students in recent years. In 2019, 14% of Cornell’s 35 incoming Ph.D. students in computer science are from underrepresented backgrounds, and 31% are women.

Alisha Ukani, a rising senior at Harvard University and a SoNIC participant, said she was at first discouraged from pursuing her interest in computer systems research because of its reputation for being “full of guys who have been hacking the Linux kernel since they were 5 years old.”

Once she took the class, she realized she could understand systems, too. Now she hopes to pursue a doctorate in computer science, and her SoNIC experience left her encouraged about her choice.

“Coming here was really validating,” she said. “It’s been nice to meet other people with similar backgrounds to me, because usually you don’t meet them otherwise. You feel like you’re a minority in your communities. But when you come here, you shift from feeling like a minority to being surrounded by people like you, which is incredible.”

As part of their all-expenses-paid week on campus, SoNIC students conducted cloud-computing research with a faculty mentor and heard faculty members talk about their own work.

“It’s really inspiring to hear stories from different professors about how they got to where they are right now,” said Lina Kaval, a rising sophomore at the University of Cincinnati, who attended because she wanted to learn more about academic careers in computer science, in addition to experiencing the diversity. “While I’m able to get along with my white male peers, it’s definitely interesting and powerful being around all of us.”

Cornell is also partnering in the FLIP (Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate) Alliance, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to diversify tenure-track faculty at the nation’s top schools.

“Without diversity, you end up with adverse effects, like an artificial intelligence system that’s trained on only male white faces. The research doesn’t represent the populace,” Weatherspoon said. “Also, people who have different experiences make unique contributions, so it actually makes discovery richer and stronger.”

SoNIC was funded by Google and Instagram.

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Gillian Smith