Furman computer science department chair Kevin Treu, Ph.D., doesn’t need a program analyzing three years’ worth of information to know whether or not the The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) is worth his students’ time. The bright futures of Haley Cottingham ’17 and Andreea Cirstea ‘17 provide enough data.
“We just had the idea that this would be beneficial to students who went. Now we have hard facts,” Treu said. “Haley and Andreea, both of them have gotten multiple internships out of this experience as well as countless contacts, and both of them got their current job situations. You can draw a direct line to their experiences with Grace Hopper.”
At Treu’s urging, Cottingham and Cirstea took the bold step as sophomores to fly to Phoenix for the October 2014 GHC, joining around 8,000 other people at what hails itself as “the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.” They were the first Furman students to ever attend, and so positive was the experience they went again in 2015 and 2016. Along the way, they racked up internships and connections before finding the jobs of their choosing waiting when they graduated in May – Cottingham with General Electric’s Digital Technology Leadership Program in Greenville and Cirstea as a tech consultant with Accenture in New York City.
Both say they likely wouldn’t be where they were without Grace Hopper.
“(Grace Hopper) changed a lot for me. When I first went, I didn’t even know what you could do with a computer science degree, but after attending subsequent years I started to get a better handle on just how many things you could do and how many areas computer science touches,” Cottingham said. “Through internships I got to experience that first hand, and that’s probably the biggest benefit of getting to go three years in a row.”
Cottingham’s internship with GE led to her employment opportunity, and she also scored an internship with The Walt Disney Company through GHC. Cirstea, meanwhile, used Grace Hopper as a springboard to internships with JPMorgan in Dallas, Lumen Research in London and Salesforce in San Francisco.
Grace Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy and will always be one of the most significant figures in computer science, male or female. She was a co-inventor of the Harvard Mark I computer before leading a team that invented COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), the first user-friendly software program that is now the backbone of world business-computer programming language.
Despite her ground-breaking contributions, however, women are still woefully underrepresented in the field. Cottingham, a native of Charleston, S.C., and Cirstea, who is from Atlanta, were two of just 10 female computer science majors at Furman in 2014, and while Treu’s relentless push to increase those numbers has paid off he’s not yet satisfied.
“We’re at 38 percent (women) right now. That’s a historical high for our department,” Treu said. “They’re always been an under-represented group …. Haley and Andreea have been tireless about talking to other women at Furman about the benefits of computer science and the career opportunities and the internship opportunities. Consequently, our number of female students has been improving dramatically every year.”
Indeed, five classmates joined the two in Houston for the 2016 conference based largely on the duo’s urging.
“Honestly, Dreea and I like to badger people about (Grace Potter), and we love to share our experience,” Cottingham said. “I definitely wouldn’t take all the credit, but I’d like to think after hearing some of our experiences and how the conference helped us get great internships … eople just started realizing that this was a really great opportunity.”
So great that Treu had guaranteed funding to anyone – female or male – who wants to go provided he or she applies for a scholarship from GHC (Cirstea was twice a Grace Hopper “scholar,” with all of her expenses paid through sponsorships from the National Science Foundation and Microsoft). Despite that giant carrot, however, only three Furman women will attend this October’s conference in Orlando.
“It’s been somewhat to my chagrin that the participation in Grace Hopper hasn’t grown dramatically,” Treu said. “I don’t know if it’s just logistics or it’s hard to get that time to go or maybe we’re just not doing a good enough job advertising it, but the benefits to the students who go are so dramatic … it seems like a no-brainer that all of the women would want to go.”
Treu also noted that he’s yet to have a male student apply, which would be another sign of a different kind of progress.
“To be fair, the attendance is almost completely women, but I think it’s valid for anybody who’s in the majority population to be aware of what the concerns are of the minority,” he said. “We try to tell the guys that every year.”
Helping women deal with working in a male-dominated field is one of the Grace Hopper Conference’s priorities, which paid off when Cirstea was in London. “I was the only female in this entire company (of 10), so it was strange,” she said. “It was a great experience, but it definitely had some awkward transitions. It was not the most friendly atmosphere … Not everybody’s there yet. Not everybody has that open mindset.”
Neither Cirstea or Cottingham had any plans to be computer science majors before they arrived at Furman. Misconceptions about the professional opportunities and the work itself were a big reason.
“Furman is a liberal arts college, and people don’t usually choose Furman to pursue a more technical degree, quote/unquote. I definitely fall into that,” Cirstea said. “I didn’t choose Furman because of computer science. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I fell into it because of an intro class. That’s what leads other females into the major. A lot of people have this tunnel vision that if you’re a computer scientist you’re not social; you don’t have great communication skills; all we do is sit in front of our computer eight hours a day and program. And there’s just so much more to it, honestly. You can be a researcher. You can be an analyst. What computer science teaches you is how to be critical and how to build something from the ground up.”
Cottingham, for example, is joining a rotational leadership program that will allow her to try four different areas of computer science over two years with an eye on a future in project management. Cirstea’s situation will be similar when she starts in August.
“If I want to work on a project in the fashion industry, I can do that. If I want to work on something in healthcare, I can do that too. It sort of depends on the project what you would be working on,” she said. “I could do programming. I could oversee the project management. That’s what I wanted – the best of both worlds. You have the technical side but you also need great communication.”
Well-rounded. Good communicator. That sounds a lot like a liberal arts education. The computer science department’s steadfast support for their professional development and journey also sounds like something else – The Furman Advantage, and its guarantee that every student will combine classroom learning with real-world experiences and self-discovery.
“We have a grant the department has earned that we use to support his endeavor,” Treu said. “Now this predates the Furman Advantage, but it’s a perfect example of The Furman Advantage where we use departmental funding to send these students out to interact and network and basically just learn what it means to be a woman in this field.”