Last week, nearly 300 7th and 8th grade girls from Ottawa County attended the Junior Achievement Girls Dream Fair, hosted by Yanfeng Automotive in Holland, Michigan. This annual event is designed to connect girls with women mentors in STEM careers to help them realize their potential and get them excited about their future. I had the privilege of speaking at this year’s event as one of the keynote addresses. After spending the day interacting with the students and speakers, I observed four powerful lessons these girls took away from the event.
To kick things off, Maranda from Wood TV8 was there to get the girls fired up about the day ahead. She brought a great energy to the room, which certainly was a product of her passion for her career. She shared a story of how as a young girl she would gather up the neighborhood kids to play a game of The Price Is Right, where she was the gameshow host. Her career parallels those same skills she used as a kid. She certainly set the stage for being passionate about your work and feeling fulfilled by your career.
Dr. Suneetha Sajja (Dr. Su) and I shared stories about our journey from middle school students to successful professionals in the computing industry.
Dr. Su discussed how as a child she would often get grades of Cs and Ds in school. She never knew how much potential she had until she decided she wanted to attend a good high school. In her home country of India, only students with good grades get to go to high school. Dr. Su worked hard and was able to end the year with straight As. She was not only the top student in her school that year, but also the top student in her state, which allowed her to attend a very prestigious high school.
I talked about how I took a three-year Computer Networking course in high school where I was the only girl in the program. While I excelled at the coursework and made many friends in class, I periodically received some unwelcomed comments from my friends about how I “wasn’t a girl” because I was good at computers.
The theme of the day was Brave, Not Perfect, which was undoubtedly inspired by the Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani. It was interesting that although our personal experiences were very different, as successful women in the computer industry, all the speakers had similar stories. Achieving our goals wasn’t always easy, but since we were going after something we were passionate about, it was worth the extra work.
At a young age, both Dr. Su and myself were passionate and had a dream. Dr. Su’s dream was to attend a good high school, and my dream was to learn more about computers. We both worked hard, Dr. Su working with tutors to get good grades, and myself enrolling in a three-year Computer Networking course. After much determination and persistence. both of us met our goal and got one step closer to pursuing STEM careers in college.
Later in life, both Dr. Su and myself faced uncertainty and doubt in our personal abilities. Dr. Su had enrolled in a PhD program to further her education at the same time that her two daughters were ages two and five. She was trying to balance working full time, being a wife, being a mother and being a student again. Dr. Su became frustrated with the difficulty of her coursework and was struggling to figure out assignments, even with the help of her friends. After discussing it with her husband, Dr. Su called the college to drop out of the program and get a refund. However, she was informed that at that time they could only refund her 20% of what she had paid. She decided to stick it out for the rest of the semester. It turns out that as she persisted, she realized she was able to figure out the assignments and successfully complete her PhD.
As for myself, I was in my last semester of my bachelor’s degree when I started to doubt my abilities as a developer. I was trying to balance too many advanced classes that all had large projects with similar due dates. I was getting frustrated and started to think that I was the only person struggling, until one day I commented on these frustrations to a couple of guys working next to me in the computer lab. They admitted that they too had no idea what they were doing. That revelation was equally shocking and comforting.
After the keynote speakers, the girls were broken up into groups and rotated through various sessions which exposed them to additional women mentors in STEM and encouraged them to ask questions. All in all, it was a wonderful day where the girls were surrounded by their peers, connected with strong women mentors and encouraged to pursue their passions.