Anita's Quilt

Anita’s Quilt: Leaning In to Community Support

In 2012, Ellen Lapham, Carol Muller, and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.

A version of this post was published on Anita’s Quilt on October 18, 2012.

by Dr. Danielle Cummings

I entered the Texas A&M Ph.D. program in Computer Science in order to pursue my dream of conducting research in areas of human-computer interface (HCI). Two years into my Ph.D. program, I was strongly considering quitting. I was a part-time student living far from campus. I felt very isolated both in the classroom and within my department.

During the week that I was strongly considering my withdrawal, I received an email about a social scheduled to be held on campus. The event was on a Friday, so I decided to attend. At the event, I met another grad student and we had a long conversation about our grad programs. When she heard that I was considering leaving the university, she recommended that I talk to a particular professor in my department first. I figured it couldn’t hurt, so I emailed the prof and asked for a meeting; that was my very first lean in moment.

I met with Dr. Tiffani Williams and explained my issues and concerns. She listened quietly—there were a few hmms and hmfs here and there—and when I finished, she asked me the question that would become my driving force from then on: “Okay, so you’ve got a problem. Now what are you gonna do to change that?”

It seemed like such a simple question for a computer scientist. Solving problems is what I do, but it astounded me that I had never considered fixing the problems that were indirectly threatening my success in the career. There was no reason to wait until I felt isolated before reaching out to people.

Dr. Williams introduced me to one of her students, another woman in the same program; we became fast friends. This student was president of the Aggie Women in Computer Science (AWICS) and she got me more involved with the group. In the a span of just a few weeks, my support network grew from just one mentor to an entire group of women in computer science who shared similar experiences. Through AWICS, I had the opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. After that experience, I felt connected, inspired, and empowered — and my network grew exponentially.

I have since attended many more programs and events geared toward empowering women in technology. I sought out opportunities not only to attend these events, but also to contribute to their organization and planning. I responded to a call to action at the first Women of Color in Computing gathering that I attended, and worked to create the Black Women in Computing online community. This group allows me, and others like me, to create a network with women who share the same unique challenges of being a double minority in computing. Even though we may only see one another once or twice a year, the group is a source of true community for us.

It’s sometimes hard for me to believe that, just two short years ago, I almost walked away from my graduate program and missed out on all these experiences. Even today, there are times when I feel isolated, frustrated, stuck, or just plain lost. But now I know that feeling this way is not the problem— staying that way is. So, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in the situation I was in, or who might be dealing with some other challenge in their life, is learn to lean in: Don’t give up on yourself, don’t be afraid to seek support, and keep asking yourself: “What am I going to do to change things?” You may not have an answer right away, but just knowing you can make a change is a start.

 

Do you have a story of persistence that honors Anita’s legacy? Share it with us for a chance to be featured here.

Or, join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #TechWomenPersist.