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Winthrop professor leads by example for girls of color
Published Thursday, June 20, 2019 10:35 am
by Sam Palian | The Charlotte Post

Winthrop University professor Nicki Washington Ph.D. is the first black woman to earn a computer science doctorate from North Carolina State University. Washington, a 2005 Johnson C. Smith University graduate, is author of “Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving In the Tech Field.”

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Nicki Washington does not want to be a unicorn.

Washington, an associate professor at Winthrop University, wants kids like herself to see that her accomplishments aren’t by chance. She wants them to know they can do it, too.

Washington earned her Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina State University in 2005, becoming the first African American woman to do so at that institution. She wants to be an example and an ally, not just someone to admire.

“I think it’s even more important for us versus a celebrity because we’re kind of an everyday person,” said Washington, who earned her undergraduate degree in computer science from Johnson C. Smith University in 2000. “She comes from the same area I come from; that’s more relatable than someone like a celebrity, I think.”

In keeping with her intention of being a reachable example, Washington published “Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving in the Tech Field” to help those who may follow her path.

“This is impactful work, even if other people don’t always see that it’s impactful. It matters,” she said. “Myself and other black women Ph.D.s, we were doing the work before it became popular to do.”

With the goal of not being a rarity in her field, Washington has made a point to advocate for diversity and provide opportunities in computer science by taking on multiple partnerships in tech.

“Most recently, I would say the computer science national framework that was led by Code.org, there were a number of writers they organized to work on that and so, as one of the lead writers, we helped to define what computing and computer science would look like for students from K-12 given that we know,” she said. “We don’t expect every student to graduate from high school and major in computer science, but, we expect and want every student to graduate and have a full exposure to computing such that if they choose to, they can.”

Among partnerships with Code.org, Google, Homeland Security and others, Washington is using her skills and knowledge to make a difference. The tech professional has been successful, especially because of the mentorship of her mother, who was also skilled in computer science.

“In my village was my mom, my friends, people at IBM; they were all black engineers, black educators, black medical doctors, college professors and things like that,” Washington said. “They were also the parents of the kids I grew up with, and so there were people that I would see every single day at school, at church, in the neighborhood. All the people who kind of represented something bigger, even if I didn’t understand what that bigger was at the time.”

Washington wants to make sure that other young black women are able to find their own and pursue computer science or whatever field they have an interest in.

“There’s still too few of us and the only way that there will be more is if people who are in positions of some level of influence make the choice intentionally to open doors for other people,” she said. “That’s what my mom and her friends did career wise when they were working in industries and that’s what was expected of all us and their kids when we got to our specific points in our career as well.”


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