Black Computer Science Ph.D. Speaks on Lack of Role Models in the Field

Kyla McMullen from the University of Michigan talks about racial challenges in the field.

Posted: 01/16/2013 11:32 AM EST
Kyla McMullen

Only 16 African-Americans received a Ph.D. in computer science in 2011, according to a Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey. But Kyla McMullen, 29, has not let those low numbers keep her from her passion for computers.

Last year, she was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate degree in computer science from the University of Michigan. Her interest in tech began at a young age when she spent hours tinkering with gadgets and computers. McMullen recently shared with TheGrio.com the challenges of not having Black role models in computer science:

“If you’re a black woman who’s interested [in computer science], you think you’re going to be the only person that looks like you,” McMullen said. “Everyone knows Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but there is really no one famous that is African-American. The lack of role models or even the lack of someone who looks like you is one huge factor that influences why black women don’t pursue computer science.”

McMullen admits she did face some obstacles during the process of obtaining her graduate degree. She remembers during her first semester, the graduate student liaison told her, “I’ve never taught one of ‘you’ before.” McMullen never understood why the liaison called her ‘one of you’ but she quickly brushed off that awkward experience.

It wasn’t until her second year at graduate school, where she really felt discrimination.

“My [graduate program chair] told me, ‘Not everyone is cut out to study computer science. Have you tried any other careers?’ He said I didn’t have what it took to study computer science,” she said. “That was the only time someone blatantly said to me to my face that I couldn’t do something. I can’t assign a reason why he said that, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of the way of I looked… I was really taken back of how dismissive he was about me.”

Read the full story here.

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(Photo: Courtesy Kyla McMullen)

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