In Face of Inequality, First-Generation Student Seeks to Empower Women in STEM

In Face of Inequality, First-Generation Student Seeks to Empower Women in STEM

At 12 years old, Jordin Rosser already was discouraged to pursue her dream career. Her aunt, a computer scientist, was facing discrimination for being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Her ideas were being overlooked, and when a male counterpart would suggest the same thing, he would be praised by their boss.

Rosser began to doubt her decision to one day follow in her aunt’s footsteps.

Her love of math, though, ultimately prevailed. Rosser is now a junior studying computer science at the University of Central Florida and is an advocate for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. She credits her high school math classes, where she learned the “beauty of math,” for instilling in her the desire to keep striving for a career in computer science.

Rosser attended Seminole State College and transferred to UCF via the DirectConnect to UCF program in January 2016. UCF was always her “end goal no matter what because of the really good computer science program,” she said.

UCF’s computer science undergraduate program has been recognized as one of the top 50 in the nation by ComputerScience.org, and the graduate program is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 100 in the country. But at UCF and beyond, garnering equal representation of women and men in computer science and other STEM degree programs has proven difficult.

Nationally, women earned only 16.6 percent of awarded computer and information-sciences bachelor’s degrees, 20 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees, and 43 percent of math and statistics bachelor’s degrees in 2014-15, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.

At UCF, Rosser estimates she’s one of about 20 women in one of her current computer science classes that has about 200 students. It’s that underrepresentation that’s motivating her to do all she can to even the playing field.

“I’ve found a lot of women are scared to join this kind of field,” Rosser said. “Maybe they don’t think they’re good enough, or they think they won’t succeed equally as men. I don’t want anyone to feel that way. Your gender shouldn’t stand in the way of what you want.”

As vice president of SiSTEM at UCF, which connects all STEM undergraduate students with academic, social and networking opportunities, Rosser strives to help students overcome discouragement as she did years ago. She brings in professional guest speakers who share industry insights, things they wish they knew in college and other tips. She’s also advocated for women peers to attend STEM conferences such as the Women in Data Science Conference and AT&T Women’s Leadership Conference.

“It’s nice to have a friend who knows of opportunities happening outside of school,” said Jamie Norman, a senior studying mathematics. “Jordin encouraged me to attend a Joint Mathematics Meeting in Atlanta in January. She’s even help connect me with opportunities that aren’t just about math.”

Plus, as a first-generation scholar, Rosser has benefitted from the student-support system she’s gained along the way, too.

“We all need to stick with each other and encourage each other to do better,” said Rosser, who’s also a member of the Women in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science group at UCF. “Hearing that others – both women and men – struggle, too, helps me continue. There are thoughts like ‘If I don’t get it right away, then maybe I’m inadequate.’ That’s just not the case.”

Rosser credits women role models in her life, like her mother and aunt, for her resilience.

“My mom’s been a single mother since I was 3 years old,” Rosser said. “We had a low-income situation. Growing up we didn’t have cable, so instead we always were reading books. She’s always encouraged me to get an education. One day I’d love to give back to my mom, to thank her for what she’s done for me.”

From her aunt, Rosser learned the power of speaking up. After being overlooked by male counterparts too many times, she spoke out, ultimately leading to disciplinary action for those who showed her discrimination.

Now, Rosser aspires to work with big data in health care applications. She’d like to help find correlations in data that can, in turn, help doctors and researchers discover new ways to treat patients.

“Jordin is the perfect example of someone who does not take ‘no’ for an answer and who uses her strengths to pull other students up with her,” said Amy Bickel, assistant director of PRIME STEM that connects first-generation, low-income and disabled students with support services. “I think women pursuing STEM careers is essential because we know they are underrepresented in those disciplines, which means the quality and depth of perspective is not at its fullest potential. In order for us to continue to achieve excellence in STEM, we must increase the diversity of thought and perspectives in those areas.”