My tech journey is quite an unconventional one. For my bachelor’s degree, I originally applied to study medicine at Eastern Mediterranean University but was admitted into the pharmacy program. I was told that if I performed well in my first year, I could transfer to the medical program. As the time to register for classes drew closer, I realized that I wasn’t passionate about pharmaceutical work. I wasn’t passionate about studying medicine either! I spoke to my dad about this, and he encouraged me to pursue a degree in software engineering because, according to him, “that is the direction the world is going.” I decided to take his advice and enrolled in that program on registration day.
My first semester was a bit tough. I did well in all my classes except for the introductory programming class. With no prior software experience, I struggled. A lot of the concepts I was being introduced to seemed quite confusing and abstract. This discouraged me, and I thought about changing my course yet again.
When I went home for the summer, my dad introduced me to a software engineer who allowed me to shadow him for a couple of weeks. By the end of the summer, I was able to create a simple website using HTML and CSS, which I found really interesting. Seeing the fun and practical side of software development steadily increased my interest in the field.
Returning to school the next semester, I noticed a shift in my outlook. I understood the programming concepts better than I had before. I no longer felt like programming was difficult, and I started to enjoy it, so much so that I lost track of time while doing it. The constant practice made my skills increase significantly. Lab work, assignments, and exams became easy for me. I became so good at programming that my professors began to commend me, and the people who I would go to for help in the past started coming to me for help. I eventually graduated at the top of my class.
I next decided to apply for a computer science master’s degree at the University of North Texas. After my application was accepted, a professor reached out to me and told me that my undergraduate cGPA, GPA and my test scores made me a good candidate for the PhD program. They asked if I would like to switch to the PhD program instead. Encouraging me with incentives, they told me that the degree would be fully funded and that I would also be given a monthly stipend, and so I agreed to switch, as I had already planned to work on a PhD down the line, after getting my master’s. After two years in the doctoral program, I was awarded a master’s degree, and two and a half years after that, I graduated with my PhD in computer science.
I am so glad that I didn’t give up after facing difficulties in the first semester of my undergraduate degree. If I had, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That degree in software engineering has opened so many doors for me. My entire graduate school experience was fully funded. I was able to secure internships during graduate school at reputable companies like IBM and Salesforce. I have also been able to travel to different conferences and to network with different people, who have inspired and helped me. Lastly, I was able to secure a full-time job at Microsoft after graduating with my PhD.
This whole educational experience has taught me so many things. I have learned the importance of perseverance, of not giving up when things are hard. I have discovered that you can achieve anything that you put your mind to through consistent hard work and determination. Additionally, I have absorbed the lesson that everything happens for a reason, and exactly as it is supposed to. I also have grown to understand the importance of having mentors and a good support system, how crucial it is to reach out to people who can give you good advice and help guide you in your journey.
I’m grateful to have had people who have encouraged me and who have given me good counsel. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have had that. In particular, I have noticed that there are too few technology role models in underrepresented communities. This can be discouraging and may prevent young people from venturing into a technology career. This is why I actively and visibly promote computing careers. I want to create awareness of all the benefits that this exciting field offers and how achievable it is. It is also the reason why I’m passionate about mentoring and encouraging underrepresented minorities.
Dr. Obianuju Okafor earned her PhD and master’s in computer science at the University of North Texas under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie Ludi. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineer from Eastern Mediterranean University. She is currently a Software Engineer at Microsoft. She is passionate about increasing access to computing for all – in particular, people with disabilities and young girls of color. Her research focus has been on the ways to increase the accessibility of programming environments. For her dissertation, she created an application that helps people with upper-limb motor impairments to write code using their voice. She also volunteers as a mentor, board member, and instructor in several organizations aimed at promoting underrepresented minority women in STEM.