CS studies: “Looking back, it was hard
because I couldn’t figure things out. I
think back on that intro class—it was really
surprising how frustrating it was. And now,
thinking how I love it now. How much I enjoy it. And how in my current classes how
much I’m enjoying making the programs,
This scenario could be taking place at any
institution, whether it be a majority White
institution or the minority institution where
Juliet was enrolled. If Juliet had been
enrolled in a majority White institution, it
could be speculated that she might have
felt even more intimidated by others in
the class as Latinas are in the intersection of gender and race. Crenshaw [ 4, 5]
coined this construct as “intersectionality”
wherein together sexism and racism are
more complex than either in isolation. That
is, a Latina might be subordinated both as
a woman and as a Latina.
Juliet, however, was enrolled in a
minority institution with high enrollments
of Latinx students, which may explain
her lack of any reference to being Latina,
or referring to others as another gender,
race, or ethnicity in spite of being aware
of her gender difference in the predominantly Latinx high school. This case
study reveals both the contentious and
inviting environment Juliet faced when
she entered into her CS studies and was
on the verge of leaving the discipline. In
spite of being at a minority Latinx institution, Juliet began to perceive herself as
incapable of pursuing this degree, as she
viewed others as more knowledgeable
and prepared. Had the administration of
this CS department not recognized the
need to build supportive structures for
students, Juliet might have been lost from
the major. This sense of not belonging is
one barrier minority students face in their
introductory courses, and it is likely more
predominant in universities where smaller
percentages of minorities matriculate
[ 8, 10, 16, 17]. Social psychologists describe
social belonging as having positive relationships with others [ 2], which was not
the case for Juliet in her intro CS course.
Nonetheless, with the structural supports
integrated into the CS department, Juliet
was able to develop a strong sense of
belonging and persisted to graduation.
Circling back to the series of opinion
pieces from the ACM Retention Committee [ 9, 11, 18] and the content relevant to
this piece, Lewis’ ACM Inroads article [ 9]
on changing the culture, points to the
importance of establishing collaborative
opportunities for students. She further
notes the importance of empathy for
students built through the cultivation of
positive relationships between faculty
and students. It can be said then that the
department at this minority university has
incorporated PLTL as one mechanism for
cultivating positive relationships among
and between students, which Walker [ 18]
also underscored in his opinion piece.
A predominant theme from Juliet’s narrative is her feeling of not belonging, which
was exacerbated by those in her class who
she perceived as more knowledgeable,
creating what Secules et al. [ 13, 14] called
a hierarchy of ability that may dominate
introductory CS courses. If so, Secules and
colleagues [ 13] pose this question for CS
faculty: “Are students creating a hierarchy
amongst themselves in ways that I could
interrupt?” This is one of many questions to
consider if CS is to create more supportive,
equitable classes that are capable of disrupting perceived hierarchies of ability and
of creating more inclusive environments.
This material is based upon work supported by the
NSF under NSF HRD-1232447. Any opinions, findings,
and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this
material are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the NSF.
Much appreciation is also extended to members of the
ACM committee who provided valuable feedback in the
preparation of this article, especially Alison Derbenwick
Miller and Lecia Barker, whose contributions substantively
improved this article.
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Elsa Q. Villa
Center for Education Research &
College of Education
The University of Texas at El Paso
500 W. University
El Paso, TX 79968
DOI: 10.1145/3239257 Copyright held by author.