Reversing a trend

Marissa Halpert ('14)

Marissa Halpert (’14)

One of the fastest growing and most important employment sectors involves computer science. Every industry from art to zoology uses computers in multiple ways, making it a field with a limitless future. Yet between 2000 and 2011, the industry saw a 64 percent drop in first year undergraduate women choosing computer science. And in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education, women graduating in computer and information sciences made up only 18 percent of all undergraduate degrees.

Marissa Halpert (’14) wants to see those trends reversed — and the computer science major and educational media minor from Richmond, Va., thinks she knows how.

Marissa got hooked on computers early, but it was her experience as a student at the Center for Information Technology, a specialty center program offered through Henrico County’s Deep Run High School that convinced her to pursue computer science in college. The center, she says, offered “very rigorous honors level courses,” where she learned Java, SQL, HTML, and coding. “I love making a computer work, seeing what’s under the hood.”

During her senior year of high school, Marissa received the 2010 National Award for Aspirations in Computing from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, one of only 32 young women recognized. As a JMU sophomore, she was invited to the White House event, Champions of Change: Women & Girls in STEM, as one of six award winners chosen by Ruthe Farmer, NCWIT’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, to represent NCWIT at the event.

“She exemplifies the caliber of young women in the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing program, and is a great role model for other young women interested in the field,” Farmer said of Marissa. She stayed involved with NCWIT’s outreach efforts and since the award she “has become a strong spokesperson for the program, and has been instrumental in establishing a regional Aspirations Award for the Virginia/DC area, [and] has helped us spread the program nationwide,” Farmer said.

The need to interest and involve women in computer science is acute, Marissa knows. According to NCWIT, “In 2003, only one-third of women with a computer science bachelor’s degree were still employed in a science, engineering or technical (SET) job two years after graduation….Seventy-four percent of women in technology report ‘loving their work,’ yet these women leave their careers at a staggering rate: 56 percent….”

But the value of women in the field is well documented. “Studies show,” Marissa says, “that women are better problem solvers.” Because of this, women versed in computer science are highly sought after by business and industry for their savvy problem solving skills.

Women are also driven by having a support network — and this, Marissa knows, is a key to involving more women in the field. Mentoring other women is an important ingredient in expanding their presence in the field.

Alyssa Berman (‘17) would agree. Alyssa and Marissa met during JMU’s CHOICES, one of several opportunities for potential students to interact with the university — and an event Marissa, now a senior, never misses. “I volunteer at every CHOICES and Open House for Computer Science,” Marissa says.

Alyssa, from Boca Raton, Fla., was looking at JMU, when the two met. Alyssa was a NCWIT South Florida regional winner, and instantly the two women formed a connection. Marissa was a big part of Alyssa’s decision to enroll at JMU.

“It’s those connections that are critical to expanding the field for women,” Marissa says, and it’s why she is so involved with advocating for women in technology. She does this through JMU’s Women in Technology club and NCWIT. “The organizations come with a community of girls just like you,” she says.

As President of WIT, Marissa brings that passion to JMU’s campus. WIT is open to all students in any major or minor. Club members include students studying computer science, computer information systems, integrated science and technology, engineering, mathematics, geographic sciences, information analysis, and more. “We are non-exclusive,” she says, “which sets JMU apart from other colleges and universities.”

Marissa has spearheaded multiple events on campus to expand this community of women. One of those events was D.I.G.I.T.A.L.

“I had this crazy idea,” she says, laughing. “Why not introduce local middle school girls to computing?” She applied and received the Symantec Student Seed Fund Grant from NCWIT. With strong faculty support and help from Katie LaPira in JMU’s Outreach and Engagement, Marissa and the WIT club created D.I.G.I.T.A.L.: Dukes Inspiring Girls Into Technology Across Limits — an acronym they had fun coming up with.

The free workshop — student-organized and student-run — brought 32 local middle school girls to campus for a day of exploring computing. “They got to play with Google Glass, CSUnplugged, Scratch, and Finch Robots,” she says, and they heard speaker Kimberly Mahan, entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Maxx Potential, a Richmond-based IT solutions company. “Our goal was to inspire these middle school girls to pursue their interest in technology and to want to learn more about technology,” Marissa says.

In October, Marissa presented a research poster about D.I.G.I.T.A.L. at the Southeast Women in Computing Conference. There, she also led a “Birds of a Feather” session about the JMU WIT club. “It was awesome to hear other people’s reactions to things we are doing here at JMU.”

In celebration of Computer Science Education Week, Marissa pitched the idea of bringing’s Hour of Code event to JMU. Last December, the Computer Science Department opened their computer labs to students, faculty, staff and the public interested in exploring computer coding. Hour of Code is part of a national push to “demystify” the computer science field, which is seeing declining numbers of graduates nationwide.

Currently, Marissa is an instructor for JMU’s College for Kids. The enrichment program through Outreach & Engagement introduces youngsters to topics that they may not have access to otherwise. Marissa leads the “Explore Computer Science” track for elementary-aged children. “Through hands on activities and real world examples, we are discussing many different areas within technology-hardware, history, Internet safety, security, 3-D printing, software, problem solving, programming, and robotics.”

Marissa’s plans after graduation this year are not set.  She does know, though, that she will be working in technology. No matter where she ends up, two things are certain: Marissa will impact the field of computer science — and she will continue to invite women to join her.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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