Jinisha Patel, of Springfield, a sophomore at the College of Computing Sciences at NJIT, recently attended a White House technology summit. Patel numbered among 12 college students chosen to attend by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), a group Patel has worked with since high school.During the summit, speakers discussed ways to ensure that young people, especially minorities, women and girls, will study technology and work in that sector. Patel spoke passionately about her own computing interests. Summit guests included U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, an assistant to the President; Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Strautmanis, a senior advisor for strategic engagement and Level Playing Field Institute Board Member Mitchell Kapor. The Institute aims to eliminate the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
During the event, five newly-formed private-sector initiatives were announced to engage more young people in developing technology. Afterwards, Patel met representatives from each initiative, who offered her feedback and support about her studies and career.
“I was excited, but not nervous about going to the summit,” said Patel. “When you have a passion for a subject, you have confidence that you can discuss it in public, even at the White House. I hope my story inspired others young women.”
Patel’s own story focused on overcoming a gender stereotype to pursue her dreams. By her own admission, in early high school she was a “slacker.” But in her junior year, she elected to take a programming class: an introduction to JAVA. Her love for programming helped her ace that class and inspired her to excel. In her senior year, she took an AP computer science class and graduated with a high GPA. She attended a community college for a year and last year transferred to NJIT. At her community college, she once asked a professor for extra work. Although she was doing well in class and wanted to stay challenged, he refused.
“I could see that he didn’t think I was smart enough to handle the extra work,” Patel says. “But I ended up tutoring the boys in the class. Because I was a woman the professor didn’t see how intense I was about programming.”
Patel grew up in India, where in her town, she says, computer science remains a “male-oriented career.” As a little girl, she got lucky. Her mother rented a small house to a family who had a computer. She was 7-years old then, and it was the first computer she ever saw. She loved the computer so much that she became a frequent visitor to the tenant’s house. Her mother, seeing how much she loved computing, bought her one. She spent hours teaching herself what would later become her academic major and path in life.
Her first semester, though, at NJIT had an inauspicious start. Her mother died in August before the semester began. (Her father died when she was four years old.) She returned to India for the funeral and then started NJIT, behind in her studies. She survived, though.
"Jinisha has already made a mark through her strong passion for computing, with a particular emphasis on helping and encouraging women students to learn from each other,” says James Geller, Interim Dean of NJIT’s College of Computer Sciences. “She represents some of the best in our new generation of computing mavens.”
Among Patel’s current projects is her work for NCWIT to develop a mobile app called TechChicks. Working with 30 girls nationwide, who like herself were also award winners, these young women are building a social “app engine” to create a community of women in the field of technology. The app project, for which Patel is the project lead, is sponsored by a $10,000 Motorola Mobility Empowerment Grant. This coming summer looks even rosier. She'll work as a software development intern for Cisco Systems, in San Jose, Calif.
“When you set your mind on something important, it’s amazing what you can accomplish,” she recently said.