“Hey Riya!” the voice on the other side of the door said in a warm voice. There was a knock on my door, so soft that if I had my headphones in, I might not have heard it. I inhaled, getting up to twist the doorknob.
“We’re all going to the WiSE library to plant flowers, if you want to join!” I looked up at the girl in front of me, and all I could notice was the shimmer in her eyes. As I paused to consider the offer, she pulled out a bag of pumpkin seeds, almost as if she could sense my unexplained unease. “Join us, it’ll be super fun,” she smiled, waving to my roommate from the door entrance.
My first semester at WiSE, the Women in Science and Engineering theme program at Foothill, was nothing like what I had expected. I had imagined I would be around women who spent their days studying and passed each other in the hallways, who bonded with one another simply by virtue of a shared interest in STEM. But the very first day, when I moved into Foothill and had dinner with some of my floormates, I could see that I couldn’t be more incorrect.
As we went around sharing our interests, savoring the newness of the vegetable medley, one of the WiSE girls exclaimed, “I just can’t get over how interesting cells are!” Twirling her pasta around her fork, she added, “They’re such small units and yet they make up everything around us.” I stared at my plate, unsure of what to say when it was my turn. I had never heard someone speak with such emotion about their academic work, their words filled with such gusto that I would’ve been tempted to roll my eyes. Yet as I listened to my floormates, I couldn’t help but notice the light that filled their eyes when they talked about neurobiology and the intricacies of chemical reductions. I was struck by their overwhelming passion, their sense of raw vulnerability and genuinity.
Later on that week, I attended my first Women in Science & Engineering seminar, a weekly meeting where we’d discuss what it meant to be a woman in STEM. I walked in to our seminar meeting to hear our residential director, Alyssa, announce that we would be discussing microaggressions. “It’s the little things,” one of my friends was saying, smoothing the lint from her cream-colored top, “The things you can’t pinpoint or explain, but that make you feel like you don’t belong.”
I nodded, surprised at how much I understood her. I thought of my rowing coach who would always yell “Good job, boys!” as we finished an exhausting erg set. I listened to other women of color recount memories that had left them unsettled, like guy friends being surprised that they, too, were electrical engineers. It was, as my friend stated, the little things — small slights that were not quantifiable enough for us to explain to our mothers as they baked rotis, but that still stung. As they stared at the tassels of the floor, embarrassed by the triviality of their microaggressions, I wanted to shout, “No, I felt that too!”
One night I walked in to find my classmates gathered in the center, acting out a scene that looked like a young woman interviewing for a job opportunity. My friend who was playing the boss asked my other friend, who was acting as the interviewee, what her desired salary was. Their improv was interrupted by our constant laughter. We giggled as the “boss” placed her feet on the table, bringing up inside jokes from previous meetings and nights spent sharing Clif bars in the lounge. Bantering with my friends as we watched Alyssa’s exasperated face, I felt at home among these women. I no longer felt the isolation of working in the library and eating my meals alone. I was encompassed by their laughter and the tight circle of folding chairs that held us together.
As we transitioned into talking about negotiating higher pay as women in STEM, I listened to my classmates share their personal experiences with wage discrimination. My friend talked about how her mother, who had been a high-ranked employee for years, discovered that her company was paying her half the salary of her male counterparts. “Since then,” she told us, leaning in to the circle, “she’s always told me to ask my colleagues what they’re being compensated for to make sure I’m being given the same amount.” I mulled over these thoughts in my mind, realizing that I had never considered having to argue for my salary the day I was hired at my dream job.
It was these moments I loved most about WiSE — getting closer to the people around me as we pondered the nuances of being a women in STEM as it related to various identities and topics. Laughing with friends in seminar as we talked about the importance of self-care, cheering as Ruth Bader Ginsburg came on screen as we all watched “On the Basis of Sex” and planting flowers in our community garden were always the highlights of my week. They reminded me of everything good when it felt like things were going wrong, assuring me of my place in STEM when the intensity of Berkeley CS made me doubt my competence. Deciding to apply to that random theme program brought me an abundance of memories and experiences I would have never expected, and I’m all the WiSEr for it.
Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].