April 29, 2020

An Interview with Nicki Washington, Tapia 2020 Scholarship Co-Chair

Nicki Washington, Tapia 2020 Scholarship Co-Chair

Nicki Washington is Associate Professor in Computer Science, Winthrop University and the Tapia 2020 Scholarship Co-Chair. We interviewed Nicki about her career and how she became involved in the Tapia Conference.

Tell me about your background

I was born and raised in Durham NC. My mom was a programmer turned manager for IBM for her entire career. My father was a K-12 teacher who became an administrator. I was born into a unique situation. My mother was a Black woman and a computer programmer, and she was one of many Black men and women in Durham who were attorneys, teachers, researchers and doctors, many of whom had graduated from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in North Carolina. I didn’t realize growing up how unique this was experience was. College was when I first realized how unique my childhood was. I attended Johnson C. Smith and, while it is an HBCU, there were no Black professors in the computer science department. There were numerous Black faculty across campus in other areas. However, we just didn’t have the representation in computer science. That’s when I truly realized how important it is for students to have role models and how few Black computer science faculty there were. From there, I attended North Carolina State University for my Master’s Degree and Ph.D.

Tell me how you became involved in computer science. 

I began programming in 8th grade and took programming courses in high school. I enjoyed it but never planned to major in it. My plan was to major in advertising, marketing and business with a minor in computer science. My first computer science professor in college, who taught the introduction to programming course, told me I had a natural talent for computer science and that I should consider switching my minor to my major. He told me that it would be a big field and I would do well in it. It was how I learned one great professor can change your whole life. He left shortly after that but his brother was the department chair and became my mentor. I didn’t see him again until 2015 at his brother’s funeral. I approached him and thanked him. Without him and his encouragement to change my major, I wouldn’t be the person that I am. He remembered me and was so pleased that I thanked him. Being a professor can be a thankless job. There are very few moments when students will thank you or show you that they appreciate what you are doing.

After I completed my degree, I went to work for a defense contractor in Virginia. I worked on classified projects that I enjoyed, but I found myself dealing with a lot of microaggressions from colleagues. I was doing talks at Howard University about pursuing graduate degrees and going to graduate school. I spoke to my manager about recruiting at Howard and other HBCU’s and was told they only recruited at more reputable schools. That conversation told me I was in the wrong place; I was not going to stay somewhere where HBCUs and their graduates were not considered reputable. Howard University was looking to hire a tenure track full time professor and the department chair urged me to apply. I did and remained at Howard for nine years.

What are you working on today – what are your areas of interest?

After my father died, I wanted to be closer to my mother and accepted a position at Winthrop University. It has been a hellish experience, to say the least. However, I learned when I was younger that once you speak up the first time, you will be more comfortable doing do it more often. You know you are doing the right thing for not only yourself, but also the people coming after you. At Winthrop, I have had to speak up about bias and blatant disrespect. I have experienced students being resistant to my authority as a Black woman faculty member. One course in particular is a non-major computer science course. Students complain to the department chair that I am rude, disrespectful, and as was written on one of my course evaluations, I have no gratitude. Student bias has been blatant at times, and yet I’ve had to argue with my chair and dean that it’s not just “students being immature” (as they like to minimize it to). Can you imagine a White male professor being told by students he had no gratitude? These issues extended to members of the department and College of Business, including the promotion and tenure committee, where my promotion to full professor was denied because “Students raise concerns about interactions which are sometimes viewed as being disrespectful.” I’ve been very transparent regarding these struggles because things will not change unless I and others in higher education continue to speak up and out against these things. My research has been focused on building cultural competence in computing. I’ve been looking for ways this can be developed as part of the curriculum. Cultural competence is taught in other fields such as healthcare, education and social work, fields where graduates traditionally engage with diverse and/or vulnerable populations. We are doing a disservice to computer science students by not teaching them how to do the same. I have been working on both a course and a tool to aid in the development of this cultural competence.

How did you become involved with the Tapia Conference?

I began reviewing scholarships for Tapia while I was at Howard. I met Joel Branch during my first year at Howard. Two years ago, Joel was Program Chair for Tapia, and he asked me to serve as a scholarship co-chair. Last year I worked with Rob Parke (the new Program Chair) and Sam Rebelsky as co-chairs. As he transitioned to Program Chair, Rob asked me to stay on as a co-chair. I will admit it is easier the second time around.

I stay involved with the Tapia Conference because I recognize the importance of representation in computing and being able to see yourself. Tapia is a place to go to have honest conversations with people who are navigating the same struggles you are and they get what you are experiencing. The ability to get connected with like-minded researchers and faculty who are committed to making computing a better experience for everyone is what keeps me involved. I also enjoy the size of the Tapia Conference; it is a place where I can see everyone I want to see and have the time for deep conversations. I also find it is a place where I can see what everyone else is doing and what I could be doing better and/or differently.

The COVID-19 crisis has been impacting everyone, how is it impacting you at your work?

I am doing everything I can not to make this stressful for myself and my students. I’ve streamlined a lot and I refuse to fail a student during this time if they are struggling with access to material or just adjusting to this unexpected “new normal.” The worst a student will do is where you were when we went remote. If my students do the work I’m going to work with them. My goal is to do what I can to help them get to the next level.