I have come to think of my identity like a program. Each object represents a different experience in my life, a different part of my genetics. As I grow older, these fragments come together to form something that sort of starts to resemble a working prototype. I am a sophomore studying computer science at the University of Michigan, but there are so many more functions to my program than just that. I am also studying business, entrepreneurship and political science; I’m heavily involved in student government and some community service orgs on campus. I have a part-time job as a digital design consultant, I’m a dancer and I get to live amongst fifty-eight other strong, confident and smart women. I cherish the memories I have made with my family and friends over the past nineteen years of my life and hope to make many many more. But when my peers look at me, they don’t see all those things, they see “sorority girl.” I wear my letters proudly, but they do not define me.
After looking up “sorority girl” on urban dictionary, I read some comments that unfortunately did not come as a surprise. I saw “often pretty but they lack intelligence or intellect,” “spoiled,” “extremely materialistic,” “extremely loud and spend most of their time shopping and partying with frat boys.” With each word, it suddenly became clear what strangers were thinking when they saw me walk by: “big surprise [she’s] even in college” and “[she doesn’t] realize how much disdain [she] receive[s] from the rest of the student body and even future employers.” Well, you get the picture. So, here’s what I have to say to those people. You might see me spending Friday nights hanging out with my friends, but you forget the Saturday nights you see me in the library for fourteen hours at a time working on a project, studying for a test or (gasp!) writing the business plan for the company I am launching.
For a little under a year I found myself constantly apologizing just for my presence. I’d ask a perfectly relevant question in class and then say I was sorry for asking. I would apologize for wanting to fight for a better grade on a group project that I felt we deserved; and then I said sorry after my male teammates told me I might be too emotional to take on that responsibility. I even apologized when I understood a concept in class and my female, non-Greek peer did not. Lost in a sea of apologies and stereotypes I started to explore the crux of what I was feeling; I realized that although being in a sorority might represent the antithesis of intelligence to some, to me it meant being surrounded by other driven women like myself. While I do have a bias opinion, I think that it is pretty darn smart to join a community of supportive and smart women in college. When we were little we joined youth groups, in high school we had clubs, in grad school we’ll be in a microcosm of whatever industry we choose. We are all guilty of joining a group of like-minded individuals. In Greek life, we join a support network, seeking resources and advice from a group of women with similar experiences to our own. While I wear my letters proudly, they do not define me.
I noticed that not only my male counterparts judged my intelligence, but other women and even other women in Greek life did too. I began to wonder how we can ask for respect if we do not even respect ourselves. In search of a more fitting two words to define myself I thought about how in computer science, we define objects based on their types and their properties. And then we define more containers that hold these objects. And then containers to hold pointers to those containers. And then we throw all those containers into a file. And then we #include that file in another file. And so on and so forth. We cannot define one program without the help of other files, oftentimes without other programmers entirely. Each little object is integral to the functionality of the program, but no single object can sum up the whole file on its own. As individuals, we get to gather up all these experiences that become our identity. So, all I ask of my peers is that they don’t choose one to define me.
As a community of strong, confident and smart women we get to define ourselves. We choose who we want to be and how we want to be seen. After I stopped apologizing for who I was, I noticed that people understood who I was even better. Of course, I still get assigned the easiest part of the group projects on the first day and even professors underestimate the commitment I have to my education; there’s no perfect science. There are two differences: one, I stopped letting other people define me; and more importantly, I stopped defining other people. No matter which communities we choose to join, we are still all humans with personalities, experiences, families, and friends that make us up. No one experience defines you, you define you. And, well, I’ve realized that I like how my program runs just how it is.
– Taylor Lansey, 2019 RTC Fellow
Rewriting the Code – Empowering College Women in Technology