Twenty-five Southern New Hampshire University students were among the 18,000 of women who journeyed to Orlando, Fla., this month to celebrate women in technology.
The students visited the Orange County Convention Center for the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration, a three-day conference held by the Anita Borg Institute for more than two decades. The conference is named in honor of U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper, a leader in computing and technology and inventor of the Navy's Mark I computer during World War II. The conference gave the women working toward a number of online tech degrees a chance to network with other women in the male-dominated industries, connect with employers in their fields of interest and hear from female leaders in tech.
Connecting with Tech Industry Employers
One of the central aspects of the Grace Hopper Celebration is an enormous career expo during which attendees can meet executives from a wide range of companies in technical fields. Many submitted their resumes ahead of the conference to be reviewed by companies who scheduled job and internship interviews. One of SNHU's attendees, Lydia Alonci, left the conference with a job offer to work as a project manager at Allstate Insurance.
"It gave me a completely new understanding of the possibilities for my career, as well as gave me the opportunity to make connections, apply for jobs (and) interview for jobs at companies I could never reach in person from my home," she said.
The career expo was valuable to conference goers even if they weren't currently looking for a job offer. Holly Carter, who is working toward a bachelor's in IT with a concentration in information management, said simply broadening her understanding of possible roles in the tech field was illuminating.
"The career fair was very enlightening with regard to finding the right career direction for me. I thought I would have to start in a different type of role in a company and work my way up to become a business analyst," she said. "I found out that there are undergraduate internships out there for this role. ... The conference was very helpful with steering me in the right direction."
Many of the women who attended this year's conference are in the midst of a change to a career in a technology field. Cyndie Ramirez is close to completing her bachelor's degree in IT with a concentration in cybersecurity. She was able to interview with four companies and said she learned more about what employers in the industry are looking for in potential employees.
"The career cluster track is a great opportunity to connect with company recruiters and see what companies are looking for in candidates and learn if I need to improve or learn something to become a better candidate," Ramirez said. "Being able to interact with recruiters and other applicants can be very beneficial and help gain exposure to potential employers and (socialize) with ... women in the field also seeking jobs."
Women in Tech
The Grace Hopper Celebration has grown into a massive conference dedicated to women in technology fields. In 2016, more than 15,000 people attended, about one-third of which were students. There were 200 sessions and 700 speakers. This year's career fair included more than 200 companies plus professional development sessions and technology tracks covering topics such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things.
The high level of interest is for a good reason. There continues to be a significant gender gap. For example, women fill only 11% of cyber security jobs in the country and just 15% of software engineering roles.
Several of the SNHU students who attended said they appreciated networking with other women in the field. "It was a very valuable learning experience for me," Carter, said. "I have learned how to adjust my resume to get noticed by companies and add my academic work to the document. Getting the chance to spend time talking directly with multiple company representatives all in one place is an experience I could never replicate on my own."
Inspired by Keynote Women
Jaclyn Barnsley, who is studying for a master's in IT with a concentration in software application development, said she was inspired by many of the keynote speakers at the conference, heavy hitters in the tech world, such as Melinda Gates, co-chairwoman of the Gates Foundation; Maureen Fan, CEO and co-founder of Baobab Studios; and Dr. Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford University AI Lab.
"It was great to listen to the keynote speakers who were wives and mothers and technical pioneers in their fields. It was incredible to talk to other women about technology and for them not to look at you weird or with jealousy but to be genuinely interested in what I was studying," Barnsley said. "The female presenters helped me to see that my dreams of having a career in the tech field was not so far-fetched but was completely doable."
Making 'Lifelong Connections'
Others found that meeting their classmates in person helped form strong relationships. "I made great connections and miss the group already," Patricia Odani Mukuka said. "It was only three days, but for me, it was like I had created long-time relationships with members of the SNHU team. I would encourage each and every woman in IT at SNHU make it a point to attend the GHC conference."
Dr. Gwen Britton, executive director of online STEM programs at SNHU, said that's a common feeling from other students who have attended the conference. "These women connect at these events, and they continue to engage and talk," she said. "This will make lifelong connections.
She said the conference often exposes students to many ways they can work in tech fields they may not have thought of and gives them a way to evaluate their abilities and what kind of knowledge and experience employers will expect.
"I think it gives them a lot of hope. It gives them a lot of confidence," she said. "I also think it gets them totally re-energized and charged to continue moving forward ... in their programs, in their lives, in how they talk to engage with other people."
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.