Education

HBCU creates internship program to help diversify tech industry

Bowie State University reached out to tech companies to create a pipeline designed to get its students into coveted internships.

HBCU creates internship program to help diversify tech industry
Scripps News
SMS

In this computer lab at Bowie State University sits the future of tech. Coding is second-nature for these computer science majors.

"It's very stimulating mentally," said Mene Bagudu, a computer science student at the Maryland university.

The tech industry can be difficult to break into, and internships are highly competitive. It is something Rose Shumba noticed several years ago, when she became chairperson of the computer science department at Bowie State.

"When I came in, it was a big challenge for the students to be placed," Shumba said.

So, she and the faculty decided to do something about it.

They created their own program by reaching out to tech companies directly and creating a pipeline designed to get students at this Historically Black College and University into coveted internships.

"We put together this plan of reaching out to the industry to ensure that we have established partnerships," Shumba said.

Big names in the industry stepped up.

"I obtained the internship with Maryland Innovation Security Institute, which is pretty much just a partnership with U.S. Cyber Command," said computer science major Lloyd Bolodeoku. "And, currently, I'm also doing an internship with Adobe."

Roxan Rockefeller also landed an internship.

"I am going to be working with Eli Lilly, which is a pharmaceutical company, as a data science intern," she said.

Diversity in tech has long been an industry challenge. According to information from the U.S. EEOC and Deloitte, 62% of tech employees are White, while Asian Americans make up 20%. 

Women account for just 25% of the tech workforce, despite making up more than half of the U.S. population.

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In 2017, black people occupied less than 3 percent of the tech jobs at Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter.

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In tech, African Americans make up 9% and Hispanics make up 7% of employees — all lower than their percentages of the population, at 13% and 19%, respectively.

It's something these students see firsthand.

"A lot of the tech companies that I've worked at — I'll notice that when it does come to the tech portion, the women are lacking," said Dejai Brown, a computer science student. "And then, also, people of color are lacking as a whole."

That diversity gap could impact algorithms and how technology is programmed — something researchers call machine learning bias — which is built-in by humans.

"That's one of the ways in which we can address this bias that is there and it's there in the algorithms that we have," Shumba said. "So, having diversity, and making sure the systems are tested using the diverse populations that we have, makes a big difference."

That is why the internship program is seen as an important part of the solution. It is a responsibility the students at Bowie State take seriously.

"You're kind of like the bridge for other people, like myself, to actually come into the room and diversify it," said student Mene Bagudu. "So, you're expected to perform well above the standard — but I really like and enjoy that challenge."

It is a challenge they plan to take full advantage of through their internships.

"Opportunities can only do so much for you," Rockefeller said. "It is up to you to also prepare on your end and put yourself out there for companies to recognize that talent and say, 'We want you to be a part of our team.'"

It is valuable preparation for a future tech workforce.

"Like the saying, you know — 'backpack to briefcase,'" Bolodeoku said. "I've been able to experience that while I'm in school."