For 20-year-old Maybellin Burgos, everything clicked when she went to a women’s computing conference earlier this year.
“That was the first time I sat in a room full of women as nerdy as I was,” said Burgos, a junior at UNC Charlotte. “That was the most amazing feeling ever. I thought, ‘Why can’t I have that in school every day?’ ”
The computer science major recently was appointed to the American Association of University Women’s Student Advisory Council. The AAUW, founded in 1881, is a national organization that works to empower women through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research.
As a council member, Burgos will advise the AAUW on the needs of college students; encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM); and make two visits to Washington, D.C.
Burgos said she wants to reach out to other female students and give them the confidence to try courses in STEM.
She said majoring in computer science can be intimidating because it’s so male-dominated.
Teresa Dahlberg, the associate dean of the college of computing and informatics at UNCC, can sympathize. She started out as an engineer with IBM in the 1980s.
“I was the only woman in a group of 300,” Dahlberg said. “It was really terrible then.”
Dahlberg said her college at UNCC actively recruits women to study STEM subjects, and she’s proud that 30 percent of the college’s students are female.
“That’s highly unusual nationally,” Dahlberg said, adding that most computing schools in the country have a female enrollment of less than 20 percent.
Burgos is a first-generation college student who transferred to UNCC her sophomore year. The Greensboro native started at Salem College with plans to major in not-for-profit management and minor in art history.
But things didn’t feel right until she got to UNCC and tried a class in computer science.
“I just have so many interests,” Burgos said. “I had to go with the (subjects) I’m madly geeky over, which is Japanese culture and computer science.” Burgos said she’s considering a second major in Japanese culture, but she’s focusing on technology for now.
As UNCC’s Microsoft Student Partner, Burgos gets to be the guinea pig for trying out and reviewing Microsoft’s latest technologies.
She’s also the president of Students and Technology in Academia, Research and Service (STARS) Leadership Corps, which helps students practice networking skills, and offers interviewing and resume workshops and mentoring. This spring semester, Burgos is coordinating a shadowing program with computer science students and local professionals.
And she is organizing a workshop called “Start Smart,” about salary negotiations for women, this spring.
Misinformation and stereotypes are the biggest problems that prevent women from studying STEM, said Andresse St. Rose, a senior researcher with the AAUW. In 2010, St. Rose published the study, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”
She said there’s a pervading myth that women are not as good at math and science as men, and women often accept that notion without question.
“It’s completely incorrect, but it’s still a very popular idea,” St. Rose said.
Stereotypes of being a “computer geek” also hinder women from joining the STEM workforce, she said.
“Someone who spends a lot of time programming or hacking isn’t really an image that appeals to a lot of women, or quite frankly, a lot of men,” St. Rose said.
She also said women often steer clear of STEM courses in college because they want to get jobs with human interaction. But technology jobs don’t have to be isolated and impersonal, St. Rose said.
“Students with a computing or technology degree are very much in demand, but somehow that memo isn’t out to the general public,” she said.
Dahlberg said there are opportunities in bioinformatics in developing cures, developing more advanced medical equipment, security, cybersecurity and much more.
“People like Maybellin are helping to get that message out there,” she said. “We’re very proud of her.”
Burgos said she hopes to find a job in game design or networking, perhaps after going to graduate school in computer science. She said she hopes that, with her position on the national council, she can help change women’s minds about STEM subjects.
“Don’t be afraid. Just come find out what it’s all about,” she said. “There are so many jobs out there for technology, and we’re just missing out.”