Black Identity that STEMs from Within While Abroad

Courtney Lett is a rising senior at Spelman College from Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s a mathematics major, computer science minor, hoping to pursue a Master’s in human-computer interaction after graduation. She wants to show people the importance of integrating computer science into areas beyond STEM. One day she hopes to use computer science to aid in social justice and education reform.

There’s a notion that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors don’t have time to study abroad, or many schools will not accept the credits from other institutions because STEM disciplines build on themselves. Without the fundamentals from one course it’s impossible to be successful in subsequent courses. With comparable coursework abroad this doesn’t have to be the case. The most beautiful thing about STEM is that there is no cultural barrier. The fundamentals of science are consistent everywhere. The periodic table will be the same, math logic will be the same, and computers operate the same everywhere. STEM and advancement in these fields have the potential to affect the entire world. I want to introduce technology that has a global impact, which is why I chose to travel.

Fortunately, my travel has taken me beyond France to The Netherlands, Belgium, England, Morocco, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Despite being away from home, I found a deep sense of comfort and familiarity in the lab due to the universal nature of computer science. I didn’t have many expectations but the same scientific questions are being asked everywhere. In France my experience with computer science is identical to my experience in the U.S. The lab uses the same programming languages and algorithmic techniques. I have no doubt if I were to go to another country I’d find virtually no difference.

In Europe I was a representation of black women before I was a representation of America. Most people didn’t realize I was American unless I told them. Still, I hadn’t escaped the stereotypes of black women that exist in America. Men would stare at me and make me extremely uncomfortable, or they would make comments that I didn’t always understand. Judging by the tone of their voices, I’m sure the comments weren’t pleasant. As a black American woman abroad in computer science, I’ve been an anomaly. Of course there are others but we are in very few company. People are always shocked when I tell them what I’ve been doing in France. In their minds a black girl doing computer science anywhere seems unbelievable. After the initial shock I’ve often replied, “Does that seem surprising?” or, “There’s dozens of students from my school studying science all throughout the world through the same program.”

Being a woman in STEM has already made me a minority but being black adds a heavier weight to it. Fortunately, Spelman College gives me a supportive environment full of brilliant women who look like me and share my academic interests but that isn’t the case everywhere else. While abroad I wanted to be sure I was making a significant impact in the lab. I finished assignments early, went out of my way to implement different techniques, and kept my work neat. I wanted to let everyone know my work ethic and abilities shouldn’t be regarded as anything below excellence. Black women in technology, or any other field for that matter, don’t have the luxury to produce anything mediocre without tarnishing the reputation we work so hard to build in our respective fields. I found this to be consistent in France and America, which really showed me how similarly negative the perspective of a black woman can be globally.

Technology is the newest, most promising, and fastest growing pursuit in the globe. It’s necessary for black people to be involved in some way so we can create, expand, and cater to ideas that can serve our people and communities worldwide.