I spent my high school days laughing with my friends and working on calculus problem sets on the grass. At my all-girls high school, female role models were as abundant as white polos. I was surrounded by women I could look up to in my classes, activities and clubs, women who raised their hands to articulately voice their thoughts in seminars and tied my tie when I couldn’t reach the knot. They were able to succeed in science and math while also maintaining a balanced and fulfilling life. As a young woman who planned on entering STEM, I wanted to do the same.
One of the strongest role models in my life was a senior on my varsity cross country team when I was a freshman. I was mesmerized by each interaction with her, often running behind her and trying to keep pace with her during practice. She took the most challenging STEM courses offered and joked lightheartedly about physics instead of complaining about how challenging the exams were. I would think back to these moments years later as I struggled with physics, staying late to ask my teacher questions about photons and perform well on tests so I could, in some ways, be like her.
More than anything, I was impressed by the extent to which she could succeed academically without letting it take over her life. Despite her intense course load, she did fun things such as wearing color-coordinated outfits to events with her friends. As a senior, I too urged my friends to go all out for social events, smiling at how much my friends looked like my teammate and her friends when they were seniors. I wanted to be like her and have a close-knit circle of friends and time for a relationship while also succeeding in STEM.
So when I came to UC Berkeley, I began to immediately search for female role models to get the same encouragement I had in high school as I navigated the intense computer science department.
I was often unsuccessful. As the technical exams piled on and the assignments became more challenging, I began to lose hope in myself. That, combined with the dwindling number of women I saw in my classes, which were becoming overly white and male, made me increasingly doubt whether I could do it.
One night, shaking with worry as I calculated whether I would be able to declare my major, I frantically opened LinkedIn and typed “Female CS Student Berkeley.” I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular — just another female student who had gone through the same rigorous course load that I was going through and had become successful. I scrolled through their feed on LinkedIn, taking note of which organizations and clubs they had joined so that I could join them, too. I then looked them up on Facebook despite never having met them, browsing their profile pictures advertising for different clubs and showing hikes with their friends. In some ways, I felt like I needed the virtual affirmation that I could succeed through the success of senior women in STEM.
I also found myself searching for female mentors in other aspects of my STEM education. In my electrical engineering discussions, I would wait to ask the lead TA, a female junior, all my questions, listening in awe to her expertise as she drew force diagrams on my notebook. The fact that she was the lead TA and yet dressed like me, wearing Converse and with a green scrunchie dangling from her wrist, gave me a sense of validation. It was with this validation that I powered through circuits late at night, almost as if I was motivated to succeed to make people I looked up to, like her, proud.
In my discussions, I dragged my seat closer to my female peers, trying to emulate the way they neatly planned out their study schedules in cursive. One summer, when I attended a software development program, I remember being anxious the day the final project was due. My favorite instructor gently dragged her chair next to mine, encouraging me to take deep breaths. She sat with me for a few hours, debugging each problem in my code that came up. At one point, I remember being on the verge of tears when I couldn’t resolve one bug. She tapped my shoulder and looked me in the eyes, stating firmly, “You can do this.”
Something about being around other women in STEM — women who looked like me, women with similar aspirations and who had ultimately succeeded — meant the world to me. It gave me a sense of confidence in my abilities. I only realized the importance of female STEM role models, however, when I struggled to find them in Berkeley.
I continue to run behind women in STEM, admiring what they’ve done as I attempt to keep up with their pace. I hope that one day, I too can be a role model for younger women in STEM — only this time, I’ll be leading the way.
Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].