Fighting 'Imposter Syndrome:' WWU working to recruit more female students into Computer Science, Math

by Kayna Dean, WWU Office of Communications and Marketing intern
  • Picture of Hailey in front of Old Main
    Hailey Fagerness; WWU photo by Kayna Dean

When Hailey Fagerness of Snohomish was a senior in high school and taking AP calculus, she struggled with deciding what college to go to and what to study.

“I looked at the classes I was taking and what I had taken that I liked,” she said. “I liked calculus and I liked math, which is something most people don’t gravitate toward. “A big reason I fell into the Math major here stemmed from me liking math and just saying, ‘why not?’"

In 2010, about 37 percent of Mathematics majors at Western were female; by 2015, that number had risen to 49 percent, said Mathematics Professor David Hartenstine, partly due to a concerted effort to bring more female students into math and computer science.

Fagerness said even with the higher numbers, it can still be a daunting feeling at times.

“It’s kind of intimidating when you walk into a room with 35 people and there are only four other girls there,” Fagerness said.

Fagerness, like many other women in the Mathematics and Computer Science departments, said she has struggled with “imposter syndrome,” which can lead women in male-dominated careers or majors to question whether they really belong and are part of the group.

This issue is not unique to Western and groups like the National Science Foundation (NSF) have begun to take notice.

Hartenstine and WWU Professor of Computer Science Perry Fizzano applied for an NSF grant in 2010, focused on the recruitment, retention and graduation of female students in the computer science and mathematics programs. In March 2011, the two professors were awarded the five-year, $590,000 grant, which ran until early 2017.

The “Graduating More Women in Computer Science and Mathematics” grant was part of the S-STEM program – the first “S” standing for scholarship, and it provided need-based scholarship funds averaging $4,500 per student per year for about a dozen students per incoming class, as long as they remained within either of the two programs. More than $500,000 of the grant total was dedicated solely to scholarships.

The professors reached out to female students with academic potential who had marked math or computer science as an academic interest on their Western applications for each school year within the grant. Hartenstine said they wanted to find female students who already had an inclination toward math and computer science, in hopes of preserving those interests.

One of these students was Fagerness.

“That helped me realize Western is interested in me for what I’m interested in doing,” Fagerness said.

These women were encouraged to apply for the scholarship and set up an interview with the professors around the same time as Western Preview in April.

Not all who applied for the scholarship had committed to Western yet, so the professors purposely arranged to meet with these students before National College Decision Day on May 1.

Fagerness recalled being a somewhat nervous high school student interviewing with college professors on a college campus, but the one nice thing about the experience was that all the scholarship applicants sat in the same room while they waited to be called in. They all shared similar interests and were either considering WWU or already committed to the university. Current Math and Computer Science students were also in the room talking about their experiences at Western and with the programs in an effort to build an early corps of allies for the potential WWU students.

Recipients of the scholarship were required to take freshman seminar classes, said Hartenstine. These 15-18 person seminar courses are introductory computer science and math classes designed to provide a broad view of the subjects and how they connect to other disciplines. The seminars also create a learning community where friendships develop, which was helpful when moving on to further classes, said Fagerness.

“The scholarship recipients had class together the entire first year,” she said. “It gave you a group to study with and people to bounce ideas off of for assignments.”

Requirements like the seminar courses create an opportunity for women to network with other women within the program and build a support system, to help overcome feelings that female STEM students like Fagerness may experience, and resources like these have helped retain a snowball effect within the programs. Increased female enrollment in upper-level math classes has encouraged those who may feel isolated and hesitant about remaining in the program to stay.  More than 60 female students in the Math and Computer Science departments have received scholarships throughout the lifespan of the grant.

Have a clear goal of what you hope to get out of the program. That can be really helpful with sticking through the entire process and not getting discouraged or giving up when things get difficult.

Fagerness’ advice to women thinking about pursuing a STEM program and career?

“Go for it. Don’t be afraid of the fact that it might just be you and four other girls in a room of 50 people. Get to know those girls and support each other. Have a clear goal of what you hope to get out of the program. That can be really helpful with sticking through the entire process and not getting discouraged or giving up when things get difficult,” she said.

Since the end of this grant in early 2017, a new grant has been introduced. “Preparing Students for Careers in Computer Science and Math” began at the end of 2017, and is estimated to run until the end of 2022.

This new grant is aimed toward increasing the retention of low-income students in computer science and math, improving their educational opportunities and supporting them until graduation. The new grant will incorporate program features to continue broadening the participation of women and minorities in STEM. Industry professionals and Western Computer Science and Math alumni will work together to provide a mentorship network to students to better prepare them for Washington’s growing number of STEM jobs.

At least 50 students will be selected for scholarships throughout the life of this grant and at least 75 percent are expected to stay in the majors through graduation.

For more information on the either of these grant programs, contact David Hartenstine, WWU Professor of Mathematics, at david.hartenstine@wwu.edu.

 

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018 - 10:16am

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