Identifying and Celebrating the Technologists of the Future

NYU Tandon Helps Honor Aspiring Female STEM Leaders and Their Mentors

On May 30, the MetroTech Center rang out with excited voices, laughter, and expressions of camaraderie, as some 80 young women, their families, and mentors filed into Pfizer Auditorium for the presentation of the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) Awards for Aspirations in Technology.

This marked the second consecutive year that the NYU Tandon Office of Undergraduate Enrollment Management had partnered with NCWIT and Bank of America Merrill Lynch to administer the awards and host the festivities, and the result was an evening of sage advice, soaring inspiration, and valuable networking.

The young award recipients from high schools across the region were selected based on their technical aptitude, leadership ability, and academic record, and this year marked the first time that a collegiate category was added to the event: the collegiate winner was Bethany Davis, a recent computer-science graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who currently works as a software engineer on Google Maps in New York City. Davis, who had garnered an NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Technology while in high school, cautioned her young counterparts that the road ahead of them might not always be easy but that it would definitely be worthwhile. “It’s tempting in a short speech like this to ignore the fact that you’ll be traveling over a sometimes bumpy road,” she said. “I don’t want to gloss over the hard parts; you may fail many times, but you’ll have people beside you going through the same struggles, and that helps.”

Other speakers also stressed the importance of having a support system. Kuri DiFede, who teaches at Mineola High School and co-coaches her school’s FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition teams, was the recipient of the evening’s Educator Award, which recognized her pivotal role in encouraging young women to explore their interest in computing and technology, and she explained to the audience that in addition to speaking up and making their voices heard, among the most vital pieces of advice she could give was to find a cadre to cheer, console, and encourage each other. “It wasn’t until I was a college sophomore that I had my first experience with computer science,” she recalled, “and it was attending the Grace Hopper Celebration [the world's largest gathering of women technologists] and networking with everyone there that set me on this path.” (The event was something of a homecoming for DiFede, who holds a master’s degree in computer science from NYU.)

Two male teachers were also honored as allies during the evening, which was presided over by Cindy Lewis of Tandon, who shared the good news that the school’s incoming freshman class included record numbers of women; Anne Matrone of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, who exhorted attendees to challenge the status quo; and TJ Alladin of NCWIT, who asserted that it didn’t matter if you were just learning to code or had already built an autonomous robot — there was a place at the table for all.

The event’s stirring keynote address was given by Alisa Nguyen, a Facebook software engineer who’s part of the company’s civic-engagement team, which has developed a tool called “Town Hall” that directs users to their representative's Facebook profiles and allows them to contact them directly from the app. As a first-generation college student at Harvard, she had spearheaded the group Developers for Development, aimed at encouraging budding technologists to use their skills to benefit people in the developing world. Her mission remains melding coding with social impact. “Don’t forget that technology can’t be developed in a vacuum,” she asserted. “Get out of your dorm room, collaborate, and make the world better.”

Judging by the dozens of young women filing out of Pfizer with their inscribed awards in hand, there seems little doubt that the world will soon be benefitting from their collective enthusiasm, drive, and commitment.