Destiney McCoy ’23 came from Birmingham, Ala. She didn’t think much about her surroundings growing up. It was merely a normality in which she was immersed. All she really understood about her locale at the time was that she lived in the projects, and that had good and bad aspects. The good part was that everybody around her was in the same situation, and she didn’t feel poor because of that. Her neighbors helped raise her, and they were always helping in some way.

But the world outside was rougher, and it seemed like there were bad influences everywhere. People called her ‘ghetto,’ and she didn’t like that and didn’t think it was true. So, McCoy chose other paths to follow, and they were usually at school.

“When you live in an environment like that,” McCoy said, “there are so many personalities surrounding you. But I was always kind of different, and I always had school on my side.”

She kept herself busy to avoid any trouble. She joined clubs like the Girl Scouts and acted in plays and attended after-school programs, just about anything so she didn’t have to go home. And when she was at home, she lost herself in books.

photo of Destiney McCoy working with equipment in a computer science lab
Destiney McCoy ‘23 works with equipment in Berea’s computer science lab. She paired computer science with philosophy to solve problems while also exploring ethics and logic. Photo by Justin Skeens

“It was always the story about the girl who got out and went to the big city,” she said. “I used to read stories about college or finding love. I’d fantasize about anything that was not where I was from.”

She enjoyed the musical arts as well, and joined the choir and the dance team even though she wasn’t a strong dancer. McCoy was exploring the options for herself and thought a lot about her future and what it might entail.

“That’s where it started falling into place,” she said. “I knew that I wasn’t the type of person to be outside doing bad stuff. That wasn’t me.”

At 14, she started going to the community center, and that’s where she was introduced to the personal elevator pitch, just a little story about herself that she could tell others. She couldn’t remember exactly what her first pitch said, but she had imagined delivering it to Beyoncé. About that same time, she wrote a letter to herself about going to law school.

At 16, McCoy started working. She got a job first at Captain D’s and then at a nursing home. The jobs helped her decide what she wanted to be and didn’t want to be. In the process, she encountered Black women in positions of power and professional settings, which inspired her. They gave her advice and time to explore colleges. Soon, she was shadowing lawyers, visiting courtrooms and meeting judges, and law school started to seem like a real possibility.

“During that time,” McCoy said, “I was hitting the statistics. Philosophy majors had the highest LSAT scores. That’s when I started looking into philosophy.”

But her high school counselor wasn’t so sure about that path, and thought maybe she’d change her mind later, so she suggested going into computer science. McCoy took that idea with her, too, and kept an open mind about it. After she graduated, she interned at a law firm and met another Black woman who struck McCoy as a person who was her authentic self.

“She didn’t try to talk a certain way to make people like her or make herself look smarter,” McCoy said. “You could tell she was educated, and I liked that, so it was a lot of feeling going out about what should I do?”

So, McCoy tucked that little story into herself and went on to Berea College, but decided she was going to be her authentic self, too. At orientation, she visited both the computer science and philosophy departments to explore her options. She had liked the idea of philosophy, but computer science seemed like a fun way to solve problems. She thought she might major in one and minor in the other. 

portrait of Destiney McCoy and Dr. Jan Pearce
Professor of Computer and Information Science Jan Pearce was instrumental in Destiney McCoy’s journey through Berea, serving as both a professor and mentor in the computer science field. Photo by Justin Skeens

McCoy enrolled in a philosophy class and liked exploring subjects like ethics, and logic helped her discover what was true for herself. And she was good at writing, but computer science seemed like a path that might be harder, because she had this other issue. She wasn’t very good at math. There was a reason for this, and it started back in high school.

“So, inner city, bad school,” McCoy explained, “and a lot goes on. My teachers would quit in the middle of the semester, or they would have a baby, or something always happened. We always had substitutes, and they don’t really know. We were not learning.”

When it came time to take the ACT, McCoy got a 32 in reading, but a 17 in math. So, when she got to Berea and discovered she might like computer science, too, she had to enroll in Developmental Math, where she met Teri Thesing, who taught the classes. 

Thesing had been teaching math for a long time, and she was a specialist in teaching students who had math anxiety. Her favorite part of her work is watching students grow confidence in their abilities, and she saw something special in McCoy.

She was an amazing student. She was the type of student who wasn’t just trying to get a good grade. She wanted to make sure that she understood the material. That was such an important part of her attitude. I knew she would be successful because she had this drive to really learn.

Teri Thesing, Math professor

“She was an amazing student,” Thesing said. “She was the type of student who wasn’t just trying to get a good grade. She wanted to make sure that she understood the material. That was such an important part of her attitude. I knew she would be successful because she had this drive to really learn.”

Thesing wanted to help McCoy recognize that about herself and to believe it. She did what she could to show her that she could learn the material and to encourage her to keep going. Not long later, McCoy was able to declare herself a computer science major. She’d moved on from developmental math, but later Thesing would invite her back to share her story with other students so they could believe in themselves, too, and McCoy became a mentor for them. She shared stories of internships, including one she’d done in Louisville, but the best stories came from one she’d done with Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution in Los Angeles.

“She told the students about her interview with a woman from Disney,” Thesing said. “The woman said to her, ‘tell me your story. Tell me who you are.’ McCoy told her story and she asked, ‘Do you want me to code now?’ The woman told her, ‘You don’t need to. You are the type of person we’re looking for.’” 

At Disney, McCoy found herself surrounded by students from schools like Harvard, Yale and Duke. She told them she went to a little school in Kentucky, and this next part brought Thesing to tears. McCoy told those other big-school students that she felt like she belonged at Berea, and she felt she belonged alongside them at Disney, too, and could do whatever they could do. Back in Berea, she told other students that story and that they belonged there, also, and could do whatever they wanted if they worked hard. 

Well, that’s how Thesing tells it. McCoy told the story a little differently. She said she wasn’t afraid of those Harvard and Yale students.

She graduated in early May, and McCoy is off to a new adventure in San Francisco, where she landed a job with Wells Fargo. She plans to save some money and go on to law school because she’s interested in the intersections between the worlds of technology and the legal system. She’s a little nervous about such a big trip, but she has a new elevator pitch to take with her. She hasn’t quite whittled it down yet, but it’s a little story about Birmingham and Berea and putting your best foot forward. In other words, it’s about
being her authentic self.

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