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Jessica Zeitz Self ('15, '16)

Alumna Jessica Zeitz Self

Jessica Zeitz Self
Assistant Professor, University of Mary Washington
Class of ’15,’16

After graduating from Virginia Tech with my master’s (’15) and Ph.D. (’16), I landed my dream job teaching at my undergraduate institution. I am an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Mary Washington, where I teach courses in programming, object-oriented design, databases, and human-computer interaction. My research focuses on human-computer interaction and designing curriculum to expose college students to diversity issues and how they affect the computer science discipline. 

Outside of teaching, my passion is supporting diversity efforts within our field and I have participated in and planned panels and community outreach. For the past five years, I have been involved with and co-chaired the Capital Region Women in Technology Celebration (CAPWIC) which is a conference supporting minorities in computer science. Outside my job, I love to crochet and enjoy time with my husband, two boys, and nearby family.

How did the department equip you for the ‘real world’?

The Department of Computer Science brings together a diverse group of students from many states and countries. I got to experience life in a diverse environment which better prepared me to support and encourage a diverse set of students at my new institution.

Being a Virginia Tech alumna means...

Virginia Tech is a community across the country and world. I felt this community even stronger within the Department of Computer Science. Even though Virginia Tech has the benefits of a large university, it felt small within the department. As this “small” community graduates students, we spread across many states and countries. I can connect with others I know and remember from my time there, but also with those I did not know or did not overlap with, but with whom I share history of being a Hokie.

My fondest memory of my time in the department is...

My research advisor, Dr. Chris North, regularly collaborated with professors in the Department of Statistics. My thesis involved the design and development of a tool to analyze complex data, but in a way that was simple enough that anyone, not just statisticians, could learn about their own data. During a meeting, I had a silly idea about allowing people to physically move around a room, and in turn, control the data on the screen. We all had a good laugh because this was quite different from our normal research.

But I was intrigued by this idea and made it real life. Virginia Tech had equipment available to students and my peers were just as interested as me. We were able to develop this new tool and put it into practice. We went on to use this tool to teach middle school girls about data analytics during an outreach event called Women in Computing Day that has been hosted by the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science for decades. It was challenging, but purely amazing to see the sparks of learning because of this silly idea! My advisor was willing to support this research idea, despite how crazy it sounded. He always said if it is not challenging, it is not research!

My favorite part about being the professor instead of the student is…

My favorite part about being a professor is seeing the lightbulb moments of my students. Computer science is a challenging field which makes it that much more rewarding when something works or clicks. When my intro-level students are coding and after hours of effort get something to work, I can see the joy in their eyes. This is the best and most rewarding part of teaching others.

Diversity in computer science is important to me because...

While attending Virginia Tech, I was involved  in Women in Computing Day, which is a large-scale event that introduces computer science to middle school girls, for four years. This, along with my own experiences of being a female in computer science, started my passion for supporting diversity. Throughout my three degrees, female students were the minority. I found support through the few other female students I met and groups like the Association for Women in Computing. 

As a faculty member now, I see many minority students who struggle simply because they feel they do not belong as much as others. I believe if you are interested in computer science, you should pursue it and not have to navigate social pressures and stigmas. Diversity is not only important for encouraging all types of people to join, but also because less diversity affects the products of the field. The computer science field produces technology for a broad and diverse audience. If these technologies are not designed by a diverse team, it will show in the product. Diversity is important to me because I always want to support anyone with an interest. Computer science is a creative discipline and will only thrive with a diverse community.