Kickstarting the Belief That More Women Can Do Great Things in Computing

First year student Ananya Barman details why the first-ever Illinois CS Kickstart event heightened the confidence of 30 new undergraduate students.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

Coming into her first year as an undergraduate student with Illinois CS, Ananya Barman knew the statistics. They seemed daunting. 

In 2020, only about 25 percent of the computing-related workforce included women. On the surface, this clearly disproportionate number caused her to feel a little uncertain of her ability to achieve her aspirations.

But after moving into her dormitory early on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus and attending the first-ever Illinois CS Kickstart event, those fears have subsided. Barman’s focus is again situated squarely on fulfilling her potential in computing.

Illinois CS first year undergraduate student Ananya Barman took this selfie in front of a waterside scene.
Starting her first year as an undergraduate student at Illinois CS, Ananya Barman was thrilled with the opportunity to arrive on campus early for Illinois CS Kickstart.

The CS Kickstart program provided a meaningful start to the semester for Barman and 29 other first year students, and, she said, deserves some of the credit for her confident approach.

According to Barman, the four-day program – designed to create an inclusive community among recently admitted undergraduate students – achieved its mission to introduce her to campus life and the learning experience at Illinois CS.

“The CS Kickstart program helped me understand what is possible here through a sense of community,” Barman said. “When you feel welcomed, those numbers don’t feel as intimidating as they might’ve seemed on a catalog or brochure. I never considered shifting my course of study, but this program helped confirm to me that I want to stay in CS and fulfil the goals I’ve set for myself.”

Those goals stemmed from a competitive high school experience in Edison, New Jersey. 

Barman said her fellow classmates all took AP and honors courses, steering, as best they could, their future toward undergraduate degrees in law and medicine. Meanwhile, she took similar college preparatory and honors courses but came away from the experience convinced that computing was the future she wanted to pursue.

She loves that computing can impact all areas of everyday life.

Still, Barman had a major decision in front of her. She had to choose from 10 universities that accepted her. Some were close to home; others were far away. Some were smaller, engineering focused schools. And others, like the University of Illinois, were larger public schools.

Even though she had only visited campus once, Barman stood convinced that she fit with the way Illinois CS shapes its undergraduate education to the theoretical and application-based components of computing.

CS Kickstart continued this positive impression she had of Illinois CS, especially as she considers software a specific area of focus moving forward. 

“I wanted to know how I could get a head start on what I was about to do, because this is the next four years of my life,” Barman said. “I know that this school, especially this department, is pretty big compared to other schools I was looking at attending. I appreciated that there are so many resources here, but I thought it might take some time to figure out which ones apply to me.”

The CS Kickstart program helped her achieve that in a couple different ways.

Kathleen Isenegger
Kathleen Isenegger

First, the course instructors, who also serve as fellows within the department’s Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) initiative, proved how anyone can thrive when provided the proper support. PhD students and BPC Fellows Kathleen Isenegger and Max Fowler have both dedicated themselves to delivering a sense of inclusivity for all student experiences at Illinois CS.

“While I love being a teaching assistant, the opportunity to engage in more direct work to help people from groups underrepresented in computing was something I could not turn down,” Isenegger said of becoming a BPC Fellow. “The people who do this work have made a personal impact on me as a woman in computing, and I want to do my part to help others access computing education.”

Max Fowler
Max Fowler

“Equity is a moral imperative to me,” Fowler said. “We know students do not always have equitable starts. We know students’ lives and opportunities improve when we can provide equitable ground. We can improve access and equity in computing, so we should. I want every student to be able to live their best and happiest life.”

Second, both fellows built on that basis and created a meaningful curriculum, prepared with Illinois CS faculty Colleen M. Lewis and Elsa Gunter.

“In general, our vision is about having more leaders in the community committed to upholding an inclusive environment in our department. This is something that can be much more effectively accomplished by being in-person for this event, and I’m so proud we pulled this off during a pandemic.

Of course, it’s all possible because of the funding for CS Kickstart that came through our grant from the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University.”


Colleen M. Lewis, Associate Professor, Computer Science

Beginning on Sunday, August 15 and ending Thursday, August 19, the participants came to the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. At other hours, there were also social activities, such as a welcome reception, last day breakfast and trip to the Illini Union for bowling.

Each day started with a lab activity and subsequent breakout group activities. Then lunch preceded a presentation from a faculty member covering research possibilities in computing. Each day’s work concluded with another lab activity. An explanation of Registered Student Organizations on campus helped each participant understand opportunities related to their own interests in computing.

The teaching focused on students learning more about coding through Python, and, beyond that, how to use coding to create.

“We broke the curriculum out in a way that allowed students to actually connect with the lesson by learning what they could do.

By seeing the accomplishment and the effect, even varying it and make it their own, we took something that was very exciting to produce and broke it down into a manageable process that helped the students learn as they go.”

Elsa Gunter, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs, Computer Science

Barman thought the entire CS Kickstart experience created a much more welcoming beginning to her Illinois CS experience, than simply showing up on the first day of class.

“I mean, we’re just starting off in college, and the instructors were so kind and considerate of us and our experiences as we started working at CS Kickstart,” Barman said. “Honestly, when they began teaching, I didn’t even realize they were current PhD students, because they were so natural in lecturing and involving students.”

The progress over the course of these few short days was not lost on Department Head Nancy M. Amato, who visited the CS Kickstart students twice.

“Everyone involved in CS Kickstart did an awesome job. I could feel the difference in the room from Monday to Wednesday afternoon.

I think it succeeded in giving these students a network and a community, which I am sure will help them navigate the semester better and propel them to success in CS.”

Nancy M. Amato, Department Head, Computer Science