“Seeing the diversity at the conference was inspiring and reminded me that our differences are the strong point in computing. It was the best experience,” said computer science student Merna Khamis.

She and fellow computer science student Van Ha Tran Nguyen were awarded scholarships from the Department of Computer Science to attend the Tapia Conference celebrated in Washington, D.C. from September 7th to the 10th.

Khamis and Nguyen applied for the scholarship because they admired the conference’s mission to foster diversity in computing. The conference, named after Mexican professor, mathematician, and activist Richard Tapia, is the result of a partnership between the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities (CMD-IT) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). 

With primarily computer scientists of color and with disabilities in attendance, the event is centered around industry, government, and academic prospects. The annual event was established in 2001 and offers networking opportunities, professional development workshops, career fairs, and interviews. 

“It gave us the opportunity to extend our knowledge about different technical topics as well as professional development. It is an incredibly impactful and important experience for students,” said Khamis. 

“I wanted to meet people who were like me,” said Nguyen, a junior, who believes she achieved this goal by connecting with other women and Vietnamese students with the same career goals. 

Khamis and Nguyen consider the keynote speaker, Stacy Branham, to be the most memorable aspect of the convention. Branham, a Virginia Tech alum and former president of the Association of Women in Computing at Virginia Tech, gave a speech titled “Hello World! I Have a Disability.” During her speech, Branham stated, “Know yourself. Find your people. Do your work.”

Stacy Branham, second from left, stands with Virginia Tech students attending the 2022 Tapia conference.
Computer science students, from left, Kylie Davison, Merna Khamis, and Van Ha Tran Nguyen, stand with Virginia Tech computer science alumna Stacy Branham, who was one of the keynote speakers at the Tapia conference. Photo courtesy of Van Ha Tran Nguyen.

“It eased the pressure on my shoulders,” said Nguyen, who felt anxious about studying computer science. “When I knew that I wanted to be in the computer science field, I told a friend also in computer science about my decision. He said, ‘You?’”

“I was scared people would think that I was incompetent in the field,” said Nguyen. As a transfer student from Northern Virginia Community College, her past experiences were centered on creating social media content, sales, and entrepreneurship. At the conference, Nguyen conversed with professionals who found value in her resume. 

“They said they were surprised that most undergraduate students thought computer science was only about coding. It was so much bigger. For example, in the research field, they look for creative ideas, and my profile would make me stand out,” she said. 

Group of  students, faculty, and alumni at the Virginia Tech computer science booth at Tapia.
Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science has a long history of having a strong student delegation at Tapia, a celebration of diversity in computing conference. Mohammed Seyam, collegiate assistant professor & experiential learning coordinator, far left, and Stacy Branham, keynote speaker and Virginia Tech computer science alumna, joins the students at the table. Photo courtesy of Merna Khamis.

The convention helped Nguyen realize the vastness of computer science. She spoke to emerging and established computer scientists, where she learned about their projects in the U.S. National Lab and international collaborations on new technologies. 

“I got to meet incredible people in the field, and they were so humble,” she said. 

Thanks to Nguyen’s conversations and connections from the event, she has found a passion for computer science-based research, specifically within the medical field, and she is currently applying for research positions. 

Khamis attended a resume workshop, interviews, and met with representatives from varying companies, including Google, IBM, and DropBox. She received advice on applying and asked questions about the representatives' experiences at their companies. 

“Being at Tapia as a scholar pushed me to use my degree and knowledge in computer science by applying to different internships and doing research, especially after using colleagues' and experts’ tips to fix my resume,” said Khamis.

As a senior graduating in the spring, Khamis hopes to earn a master’s degree at Virginia Tech in human-computer interaction (HCI), a research field exploring how technology can meet users’ needs. Through the conference, she received an offer to be a research assistant at Wellesley College, where she will be focusing on HCI during the spring semester. 

“The conference really impacted my life, way of thinking, and confidence to be in the field. Also, meeting some of our career leaders pushed me to work hard toward my degree, and knowing your target is the best way to succeed,” said Khamis. 

“My experience taught me the importance of diversity in our field. None of this would have been possible without the scholarship from the Department of Computer Science. The Tapia Conference has completely changed my life,” said Nguyen.”

Written by Tayler Butters, a student intern in the Department of Computer Science