Soon after taking a seat in her high-level computer science class, Duke student Kiara de Lande surveyed the room. The realization that she was one of only three women of color washed over her. It left a tang of discomfort and confusion. In her gut, she knew that she was capable of success. But then, why were there so few students that looked like her? Doubt ensued: perhaps this was not a place for her.
de Lande was one of five members of the student advisory board for AiiCE (Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education) who reflected on their experiences as minority students in computer science in a virtual panel held Jan. 23.
As de Lande shared her story, undergraduate Kianna Bolante nodded in agreement. She too, felt that she had to “second-guess her sense of belonging and how she was perceived.”
Berkeley ’24 graduate Bridget Agyare added that group work is crucial to success in CS classes, stressing the need for inclusion. The harm of peer micro-aggressions was brought up, the panel emphasizing the danger of stifling minority voices: “When in groups of predominantly males,” de Lande said, “my voice is on the back-burner.”
To not feel heard is to feel isolated, compounding the slam of under-confidence. Small comments here and there. Anxiety trickling in when the professor announces a group project. Peers delegating to you the “front-end” or “design” aspects, leaving the more intricate back-end components for themselves. It’s subtle. It feels like nothing glaring enough to bring attention to. So you shove the feelings to the side.
“No one reaches this level of education by mistake,” said Duke CS graduate student Jabari Kwesi. But over time, these subtle slights chip away at the assurance in your capabilities.
Kwesi remembers the first time he spoke to a Black female professional software engineer (SWE). “Finally,” he said, “someone who understands what you’re talking about for your experience in and outside academia.”
He made this connection in a Duke course structured to facilitate conversations between students and professionals in the technology industry. In similar efforts, the Duke organization DTech is devoted to non-males in tech. Mentors provide support with peer advisors, social gatherings, and recruiter connections. It also provides access to a database of internships, guiding members during competitive job-hunting cycles.
As university support continues to grow, students have not shied away from taking action. Bolante, for example, created her own social computing curriculum: focused on connecting student’s identities to the course material. The initiative reflects her personal realization of finding the value in her voice.
“My personal experiences, opinions, ideas are things no one can take away from me. My voice is my strongest asset and power,” she said.
As I listened to the declaration, I felt the resilience behind her words. It was evident that the AiiCE panelists are united in their passion for an inclusive and action-driven community.
Kwesi highlighted the concept of “intentionality.” As a professor, one has to be conscious of the commitment to improvement. This includes making themselves available to students and accepting feedback. Some suggestions amongst the panel were “spotlights” on impactful minorities in CS. Similarly, in every technical class, mandating a societal impact section is key. Technology does not exist in a vacuum: deployment affects real people. For example, algorithms are susceptible to biases against certain groups. Algorithms are designed for tools like resume scanners and medical evaluations. These are not just lines of code- people’s livelihoods are at stake. With the surge of developments in artificial intelligence, technology is advancing more rapidly than ever. To keep bias in check, assembling interdisciplinary teams can help ensure diverse perspectives.
Above all, we must be willing to continue this conversation. There is no singular curriculum or resource that will permanently correct inequities. Johns Hopkins ’25 graduate Rosa Gao reminded the audience that inclusivity efforts are “a practice,” and “a way of moving through space” for professors and peers alike.
It can be as simple as a quick self-evaluation. As a peer: “Am I being dismissive?” “Am I holding everyone’s opinions at an equal weight?” As a professor: “How can I create assignments that will leverage the student voice?”
Each individual experience must be valued, and even successful initiatives should continue to be reinvented. As minorities, to create positive change, we must take up space. As a greater community, we must continue to care, to discuss, and to evolve.
By Ana Lucia Ochoa, Class of 2026