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Maya Hamilton’s Twitter bio is short and sweet.

“I code,” we read, followed by his username on social networks. But her STEM journey has been anything but straightforward.

Hamilton, 22, will graduate from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte this month with a computer science degree that she fought hard to get, being one of the few black women in the department.

His determination came from an early love for technology.

When not out playing with friends, Hamilton was glued to a computer screen throughout her childhood.

“Back then, social media didn’t exist,” she says. “So I was playing computer games. I like seeing all the different things on it, trying to figure out how it all worked out. “

She became the designated IT support person for her family – when her parents struggled to get something to work on the computer, they turned to Maya. They still do.

But she didn’t decide to pursue a career in computer science until she took a grade 10 computer programming course.

In the classroom, she learned to make and program things like a digital calculator, scratching an itch that she didn’t know she had – she wanted to understand how technology worked.

“It was satisfying to see how you could build a calculator from scratch and work hard to finish the programming,” she said. “I loved the feeling after the program worked and worked flawlessly.”

So after graduating, the Raleigh native started at UNCC with the intention of majoring in computer science, but her math scores weren’t high enough.

Hamilton had long struggled with mathematics. She watched YouTube videos and Khan Academy classes for hours trying to figure out the concepts. It was only through hours of outside work that she managed to finish her high school math classes, but her grades still weren’t high enough to allow her to enter college in as a major in computer science.

But just as Hamilton had persevered in high school, she was determined to find a way forward, and after a year her hard work paid off. She entered her second year of college majoring in Computer Science.

She remembers entering her first introductory computer class overwhelmed by the large number of students – there were over a hundred students crammed into tight seats. The rows seemed endless.

However, despite the sea of ​​students, she soon realized that there was only one or two that looked like her.

Later, she would be struck by a second achievement: She had also been one of the only black students in her high school class.

A supportive community

Over the next few years, Hamilton would make a point of reaching out to other black students in his classes.

“I would try to sit down with them and talk to them because who else do we have?” she said. “I would start a group discussion so that we could all finish the course. … We had a sense of community.

She said the community she built was one of the reasons she was able to graduate.

“You’re in class with people who’ve been coding for years,” she says. “We felt more comfortable helping each other than getting help from the white men in the class who said, ‘It’s easy.'”

And from those group discussions, many of them said that was also what helped them pass the course, she said.

“It feels good to have someone like you, compared to being in a sea where you feel lonely.”

Blacks are grossly under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math, especially women. Research shows that having same-race, same-sex models helps increase success and retention in the field.

The UNCC website lists 60 people in its computer science department, most of them men. Hamilton took his first class with a black professor – the only black woman in the department’s teaching faculty – in his second year.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. She’s a black woman with her doctorate, ”she said after her first class with Dr. Dale-Marie Wilson. After Hamilton was accepted into the computer science department, Wilson became his academic advisor.

“All the black women here are saying that without Dr. Wilson they would have given up majoring,” Hamilton said.

Wilson is keen to reach out to black computer science students at UNCC, especially women, to show them their support – because she knows what it’s like to be lonely.

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Wilson came to New York University in 1993 to study mathematics, which was in the same building as the university’s computer science department.

Maya Hamilton poses for a portrait in Charlotte, North Carolina, Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

During her undergraduate studies, she was approached by an administrator who encouraged her to explore a career in IT, so Wilson majored in CS. After graduation, she worked in a software computing company and went on to obtain her Masters and PhD in Computer Science from Auburn University.

In many of these environments, she was the only black woman. During her undergraduate career at NYU, she had learned how important it was to have a community to lean on for support. So after arriving at UNCC in 2006, she began reaching out to black students for support due to the unique challenges that students of color face in a field where they are outnumbered.

I wanted them to know there was someone in their corner, not only academically but also personally, ”Wilson said in an interview with The Observer. “I know that sometimes we have difficulties that traditional students may not have. And I want them to be successful.

Hamilton said she had unpleasant interactions with white classmates who would take over the computer during lab projects, dominating classwork and not acknowledging her contribution.

“If I wasn’t a woman or a black man, he would have listened to me,” she says. “I also tried to be part of groups in classes with other students, but these students don’t seem to choose me… it seems they don’t want us.”

Hamilton said these experiences only prepared her better for the corporate world “because there aren’t many of me in the workplace anyway.”

“I feel ready to speak for myself and ask questions without being ashamed,” she said. “Even though I feel there is no room for me, I am making room for myself.

“I deserve to be here.”

Her photo goes viral

Musical artist SZA released his debut album Ctrl in 2017, the same year Hamilton started college.

For the next four years Hamilton studied in the library listening to “Drew Barrymore”, she walked from class to class listening to “Supermodel” and when she was hanging out with friends they listened to “The Weekend,” all of the songs in the world. ‘album.

The release of the album marked the start of a journey for Hamilton, so naturally she wanted to commemorate the ending with the album as well.

The album cover features SZA surrounded by a graveyard of old computer monitors. When Hamilton first saw the cover art in her freshman year, she knew she wanted to try and recreate it as a senior.

First, she thought about where she could physically find old computers, but soon realized how tricky that would be. Hamilton therefore learned to edit images herself in Photoshop.

“I worked on it for two weeks. I was so determined, ”she said. “I didn’t know it was going to explode like it did.”

Since the photo was posted to Twitter on April 26, she has received over 333,000 likes and been retweeted over 40,000 times, and has been reposted on several social media pages that promote black women and women in STEM . SZA herself even acknowledged it, posting her own congratulatory tweet.

“I was so shocked,” Hamilton said. “I’m definitely not a person who likes to be in the spotlight, but I’m happy because this has gone viral. Not because it’s me, but because I have received countless messages from young girls asking me for advice.

Hamilton said one of his goals was to make computing more accessible to young black girls and women. On Instagram, she shared an inspiring post about her own IT journey. She said that despite the challenges she faced, including a professor who even encouraged Hamilton to drop the major, she worked at global companies like SAP and Toyota and became her family’s first software engineer.

“Most importantly, I’m leaving my legacy at UNC Charlotte by partnering and researching with the IT and IT department to create a guide for first year women of color to ensure they have tools needed to achieve greatness in computing, ”the article read. .

“When you don’t see a change or representation, do something about it. I thank God every day for the strength to persist and for giving me so many opportunities to be an example.

After graduation, Hamilton will move to Dallas and work as a software engineer for JP Morgan Chase.

We need representation, ”she said. “At first I felt like I didn’t fit in, but I’ve built my confidence now. I’m a fan of making room for myself and giving back to younger girls because I didn’t have anyone to look up to who was young like me. I want to be that representation.

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