Dr. Jan Pearce
In a field where women have slowly dwindled from earning 37 percent of undergraduate degrees in 1985 to 18 percent in 2019, Dr. Jan Pearce has blazed a trail in developing Berea’s Computer Science department since she arrived in 1992.
Citing examples like Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures,” Pearce explained how early on the field of computing was populated by both women and African Americans. As those numbers have fallen nationally, Pearce and her colleagues in computer science have sought to raise interest and engagement among women and minorities in Berea’s computer and information science major.
“Our department is very committed to research-based pedagogy that is inclusive,” said Pearce, pointing to studies that show such research resonates with students from underrepresented minority communities. “We are proud that we are serving a diverse group of [students]. We work hard to create a strong, diverse community. It is something we believe in.”
Berea’s mission won Pearce over while she was searching for a teaching position in 1992. She was just completing her doctoral degree in mathematics at the University of Rochester while teaching at Nazareth College nearby. Her thesis professor offered to assist her in finding a post-doctoral research position, but having done undergraduate research at her alma mater, Augustana College, Pearce knew that teaching and doing research with students at a small liberal arts college was the right direction.
“His eyes went wide,” Pearce recalled about her thesis professor’s reaction to her desire. “‘But, I don’t know anyone at small liberal arts colleges,’ he told me. And 1992 was not a good time for job-seekers in higher education. So he told me to apply everywhere.”
Pearce cast a wide net and received multiple offers, but Berea quickly captured her attention.
“I had not heard of Berea College before I started my job search,” she said. “When I started looking at schools, I read Berea’s mission and found it completely compelling.”
Pearce has spent the past 28 years supporting Berea’s mission in the classroom. She was hired, in part, to shepherd the computer science minor that was then housed within the Mathematics department. In 2007, computer and information science was approved as a major, and today Pearce sits as the Computer Science department chair.
She leads her department with intentionality, both in reaching a diverse group of students to show them how this major and career field is open to them, as well as intentionally diversifying the faculty in the department to reflect Berea’s student body. The 2020-21 computer science faculty is composed of five department professors and one who teaches some courses for the department. Of those six, three are women and two are African American.
“When we recruit faculty, we don’t just put out an ad, we go to conferences and look for those we think would be a good fit,” Pearce said. “We want to find the best people for Berea, for our students.”
Pearce’s passion in the classroom and her motivation for financially supporting the College always goes back to the students she serves, she said.
“What makes me a donor is how deeply our mission impacts our students,” she said. “You can donate to other schools and you’re going to help students’ education, but at Berea your donation will help for generations—the students, their families and their children. It’s kind of an amazing thing to change someone’s life for the better. That’s what we give them at Berea. We give them opportunity.”