Club Leaders Advance Diversity in Computer Science

Co-presidents of Tufts Black Students in Computer Science forge a supportive community with a technological edge

Tufts engineering sophomores Nasir Wynruit, E25, and Jahnea Potts, E25, are building a community among Black computer science students at Tufts—which they say not only supports their peers, but also helps make the field of computer science stronger.

“Diversity is important in every field, but especially in STEM fields, where problem solving with one type of perspective really doesn't get you anywhere,” Wynruit said. “When you combine different diverse perspectives and different ways of thinking, you can arrive at a solution faster, and more efficiently.”

As co-presidents of Tufts Black Students in Computer Science (BSCS), Wynruit and Potts aim to increase the number of Black and Brown students studying computer science and related subjects at the university. With a current membership of about 70 students, the club offers support, encouragement, and inspiration. Since last fall they have welcomed 15 new members and put on six events relating to academic, social, and professional fields.

The club was founded in 2019. When Wynruit and Potts arrived at Tufts in the fall of 2021 after graduating from high schools in Westport, Connecticut, and Gahanna, Ohio, respectively, they joined club leadership: Wynruit became the club’s social media point person and Potts its treasurer.

By spring they stepped up to fill co-president vacancies, a willingness that speaks to their commitment and passion to advancing both club and university DEI priorities, said faculty advisor Trevion Henderson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“Taking on any leadership position in college can be an enormous challenge,” he said. “Doing so as a first-year student is beyond impressive. What most impresses me about Jahnea and Nasir is that they unified framework for fostering the organization’s short- and long-term success. Their plans for fostering community amongst Black computer science students, for reaching out and connecting with Black computer science alumni, and for integrating BSCS into the larger Tufts engineering community, are a manifestation of their maturity, insight, and intellect, and suggest a promising future for BSCS.”

Wynruit, a double major in computer science and mathematics, and Potts, a computer science major, talked with Tufts Now about their pathways to computer science and their advocacy for underrepresented groups in the field.

Tufts Now: Why do you find makes a compelling message about computer science?

Nasir Wynruit: I describe computer science as unexpectedly creative. Computer science, as well as all STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields, has plenty of fun and exciting uses for creativity.

Jahnea Potts: Problem-solving is the cornerstone of computer science, and creativity is what makes problem-solving possible. To a student who might be on the fence about computer science, it’s valuable for them to understand that their keyboard can be an outlet for their creativity. The things they create can solve real-world problems, which is truly a beautiful thing.

How did your high school activities prepare you to step into a club leadership role at Tufts?

Wynruit: My club activity was with sound technology and theater, and it was a great experience. I was a rookie when I joined; I only knew that I liked theater and musicals. I went from having no knowledge of sound at all to being able to do sound design and sound effects. I couldn’t have done that if the club presidents hadn’t showed me the ropes and by doing that, they showed me what it meant to be a leader.

But I'm also passionate about the Black STEM community, so when I came to Tufts, I saw having a leadership position in a Black STEM club was a good fit. It enables me to connect with that community more than if I was only a member. I like organizing things that are connecting us with the community. I also gravitate toward advocacy because I just like helping people. An important part of being a student is just knowing how to help other students around you. 

Potts: I was in a lot of leadership positions in high school; I was president of our math club and of code club, and I started a chapter of New Alpha Theta, which is a math honor society. My school was a K through 12 and I started math club in the middle school. So I wanted to continue that involvement at Tufts but I also wanted to do it with people who I identified with. I've been in PWIs [predominantly white institutions] for a lot of my life and at Tufts, the Black student population is about 4%. Being co-president gave me an opportunity to find my community and to be a leader in that community.

Black Students in Computer Science is rooted in the belief that “an encouraging, unified community with a technological edge can lead underrepresented students towards a successful future.” Have you felt isolated in your own journey, and how does feeling united help you advance your mission? 

Potts: Coming from PWIs, the teachers I had and the people I looked up to were sweet to me; they really did shape who I am today. But sometimes it was also isolating to be the only Black girl in the class. There is nobody that you can really talk to who would actually understand your experiences, the good and the bad.

So I know how important it is just to be that person that people can go to and talk with. When we had our club fair and we were at our booth, a first-year student came up to us and said: “I wrote about this club in my application essay.” She was very excited to join and have a community that fit what she needed.

Wynruit: Creating unity is the center of our work; we can’t increase the Black STEM population by ourselves. We have a small population of Black students, but we do what we can to join together. We are finding and at the same time making our own community.

What are the positive messages you want to share about computer science? Are there misconceptions that you have to overcome?

Wynruit: We’re moving beyond the stigma around computer science as narrowly defined as coding. There are so many fields where you can use computer skills; you can basically do anything. Last semester I took a web design course and there was coding, but there were also a lot of style and design decisions to consider, a lot of artistic elements.

Potts: I think in terms of breaking down the walls to computer science. Speaking from my experience as a TA [teaching assistant], encouragement goes a long way. Encouraging people to think about their own solution to a problem is really important. As an example: I'm a TA [for Introduction to Computing for Engineering] and one of the first assignments is to write a poem following specific rules. The message: The creativity that is required to write the poem and to follow the rules is basically the same as when you're coding. Follow the rules and you can be as creative as you want to be.  

Why is diversity important to computer science?

Wynruit: Diversity is important in every field, but especially in STEM fields, where problem solving with one type of perspective really doesn't get you anywhere. That’s why in a lot of jobs in STEM fields you will work collaboratively with people from very diverse backgrounds. When you combine different diverse perspectives and different ways of thinking, you can arrive at a solution faster, and more efficiently.

Potts: Diversity in technology is also important in areas like machine learning. Face recognition, for example, generally uses white faces. When the ID technology tries to recognize Black faces, sometimes it just won't see them at all. There is built-in bias unless we are more diverse and inclusive. Another example: In Introduction to Computing, we wanted to figure out the best places for voting stations to make sure that people have access to them, and we pulled demographic data from different communities. But the quality of that data may be questionable because it is not considering community factors that are important to voting, like public transportation. So when trying to identify where we should place voting stations, a diverse set of perspectives is needed to fully realize all related factors involved.

A lot of efforts aim to increase gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in STEM fields. Do you see the work you do with Black Students in Computer Science as a step toward closing such gaps?

Wynruit: We believe BSCS is connected to the larger narrative of diversity in the STEM workforce by supporting, inspiring, and empowering students from all parts of the African diaspora interested in computer science. We are here to support Black computer science students at all times, including when they apply to internships, research experiences, and jobs in technical fields.

Potts: Bloomberg Media recently reached out to partner with us with an opportunity to help students get ready for life after graduation. We hosted their Zoom presentation where they talked about what students need to do to prepare a successful resume and present themselves at a technical interview. It went well, and we have them in mind for future programming. So while a club like BSCS has a positive impact on Tufts students while they’re here, we are very aware that our work has implications in a much larger national context.  We’re optimistic that, in time, STEM fields will better reflect the true diversity of the American population.

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