Three years ago Women’s History Month’s national theme was “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” The theme honored generations of women who throughout American history have used their intelligence, imagination, sense of wonder, and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions to the STEM fields. At UMBC we honored this theme by partnering with the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) to feature some of their amazing students participating in technology in the engineering and information technology fields. While the theme for Women’s History Month changes every year, we have come to love the tradition in spotlighting the stories of UMBC’s CWIT women. So with that, we are honored to bring you the 3rd Annual CWIT Showcase in honor of Women’s History Month.
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CWIT Scholar & Newcombe Scholar
Meet Natacha Ngea! A CWIT Scholar and computer engineering major.
Describe what sparked your interest STEM and the journey to choosing your major.
I have always been interested in Science and Technology. My favorite classes were biology, chemistry and Mathematics. I still remember how excited I was to perform experiments with test tubes. In my country of origin, Cameroon, you specialize in high school and your admittance in College depends on what you graduate in. I was placed in Modern Languages. It never felt right. When I got the opportunity to come to the US, I decided to use that chance to finally do what I always wanted to do. In order to do so, though, I needed to pay my way to school and fill the gap I had in technology so I had so I enrolled in a professional certificate at Howard Community College (HCC). My first class was a computer repairs class. I loved it. I wanted to know how computers work. My professor knew so much on the topic that I asked him what was his background was in. He told me he was a mechanical engineer. That is when I started thinking about getting a degree in engineering. After meeting with my advisor, I took some tests and I enrolled in a second degree in engineering. After physics I, I knew mechanical engineering was not the right fit for me but I found out there was a computer engineering program. I read the curriculum and I was sold. In the meantime, I was invited to join the STEM community at HCC. Through this program, I grew more and more confident. I also joined the Computer/Network support team as an intern. I discovered that I liked troubleshooting and taking things apart. I learned a lot there. I am a visual learner and English is not my first language so being able to relate a concept I learned in class with an application I encountered through my internship was great. After an A.A.S in Computer Support Technology and an A.A in Computer Science, I transferred to UMBC in fall 2014 to pursue a degree in Computer Engineering and I also work for DoIT as a network technician.
Tell us about an internship, research experience or project that you are proud of.
When I started my first internship. I had no experience. No one expected much from me or asked me anything so I started going on tickets on my own and shadowed more experienced technicians. I wanted to be taken seriously. Finally a big project came and individual assignments were made as it went. When I was given my own part of the project, I knew that my efforts were paying: I was part of the team.
Who are your role models in the engineering or IT field? How have their stories influenced your educational or career goals.
My role models are my peers. Each one of them has her story and it is really fascinating to hear them. I went to Grace Hopper Conference last Fall and I met a lot of professionals in the field and other students in the country or from other countries. It was very encouraging to me to hear the same passion and drive, sometimes the same goals and I felt re-energized. It was a great experience. If you are in a computing major, you must attend Grace Hopper.
Women often face subtle comments (microaggressions) or people who tell them they can’t/shouldn’t be in these majors which are often dominated by men. What would you say to those women or what advice do you have?
In the environment where I grew up, the young are discriminated against because they are young. The older can get away with anything because they are older. That experience and the other forms of discrimination I faced taught me a very important lesson: It is not about you. It is about the aggressors. They have a problem. You do not. For the most part, you are never really conscious right away of these microaggressions. You find yourself angry and low on energy because those tiny papercuts start to accumulate. You are not alone in this. At Grace Hopper, I kept hearing the same story over and over again no matter where the women were in their professional lives.You need to create your own support system: It may or may not involve people. If it does, it does not need to be other women in your major, though that would be ideal. My first year at UMBC, I was hanging out with mechanical engineers. Do something that always brings you high positive energy (it will channel your frustration into something positive) and remind yourself of what motivates you to be in these majors. I created a Women in Computer Engineering Lean In Circle opened to undergraduates, graduates and alumnae. Of course, there are plenty of other resources on campus such as SWE and affiliates from scholarship programs.
Natacha is also a Newcombe Scholar and part of the Women’s Center Returning Women Students Program. She’s pictured here with other UMBC returning women students at fall orientation.
With viral hashtags like #DistractinglySexy or #AddWomen and #Ilooklikeanengineer, women in STEM are using social media as a tool for activism and creating awareness about women’s representation in STEM. What’s your favorite example of women in STEM supporting and empowering themselves and other women to change the narrative about women in STEM?
I have already mentioned the Grace Hopper Conference and Lean In Circles but my favorite is #Ilooklikeanengineer. America loves labels. I have never seen anything like it. When you think about it, most issues stem from this need to catalog everything including people. This campaign is great because you can fit in any other label and see how pointless they are.
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The Center for Women In Technology (CWIT) is dedicated to increasing the representation of women in the creation of technology in the engineering and information technology fields. CWIT efforts begin with nurturing a strong group of Scholars, grow to building community resources for other women in these majors, extend to fostering a healthy gender climate and ITE pedagogy in College of Engineering and Information Technology (COEIT) departments, and finally expand into outreach efforts to increase interest in technical careers. A successful program for female-friendly engineering and information technology education at UMBC will help make UMBC a destination for women (and men) interested in technical careers and serve as a national model for other universities. To read previous Women’s History Month CWIT spotlights, click here.
To learn more about the experience of women in STEM, check out the American Association of University Women’s report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) which presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers — including stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s progress in STEM.
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For more information about Women’s History events and happenings, visit the Women’s Center myUMBC group page.