On her father’s shelf, Concepta ’23 found a book written in a mysterious language. The symbols on the cover—C++—were a computer language she would not understand for some time, but they were intriguing nonetheless as Concepta pondered the symbols and what they might unlock.

She was hearing stories, as well, often from the United States, of advances in computing that enabled amazing things. The apps on her phone were enough to pique her curiosity, but now there were tales of self-driving cars in the States. Concepta wanted to know how it all worked and began teaching herself to code. Before long, she was teaching others to code in a high school club of which she was president. Using simple programming language, they developed mobile apps for club projects and competitions.

Concepta was used to leading. Though she was second-to-youngest in her family of 10, her elder siblings had all moved out of their Fort Portal, Uganda, home, leaving her in charge of her younger sister and many of the household responsibilities. When her father, a civil engineer, retired, it fell on Concepta to earn her own money as well. She farmed a portion of the family’s land, raising cassava and selling it at the market. Money for college, too, was in short supply, and Concepta understood that to go, she would have to earn a full scholarship. The dream was to go to school in the U.S., the land of companies like Microsoft and Google.

Photograph of Concepta leaning against a wall,
Photo by Tyler Rocquemore
Background art by Peter Morphew, Berea College archivist. The art was part of a larger exhibition titled [UN]Boxing Archives.

Concepta had excelled in school and risen to class president. She had options in Uganda, but none that offered the hands-on experience in computer science Berea did.

“That was what going to college in the U.S. meant for me,” Concepta said. “Going to college in the U.S. and majoring in computer science meant I was going to get to practice all those technologies I used to hear of.”

What little she knew about the U.S. had come from media. She imagined walking down the street and bumping into a Kardashian, a family popular on reality television. She googled “colleges that offer full-ride scholarships” and discovered Berea College. It was in Kentucky, a state she’d heard of through the ubiquitous Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain. Concepta read about the computer science department and how they had a program to teach children robotics. It resonated because Concepta had taught the local children basic robotics as well. Berea’s size was also a draw for her—its small-community atmosphere meant she could have more personal interactions with faculty.

When she came to Kentucky, she found a friendlier place than she had seen in the movie, “Mean Girls.”

“I found really friendly people here,” she said. “I like Kentucky. People are very supportive and willing to help.”

What she didn’t find, though, was very many women in her computer science classes. Nationally, only one in five computer science students is female. That first semester, Concepta was able to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, where she met representatives from Girls Who Code. They were looking for students to start chapters at their respective colleges.

And that’s what Concepta did when she got back to Berea. Founding the Girls Who Code chapter at Berea allowed her to develop friendships with older students who could give her advice on which classes were most beneficial. 

“To me, it’s more a community of sisterhood where you get to meet other girls who are majoring in computer science, receive mentorship and just talk about our experiences,” said Concepta, who also founded the Berea College chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

“Starting clubs has been a great achievement for me because I feel like those are communities that will live on beyond me,” she said.

One of my mentors said that you don’t really understand something until you have to teach it. It’s why I think I even enjoy it more because it’s not about the teaching only. I am equally learning from the times I’m teaching others. It’s helped me in my own academics because I am relearning what I learned.

Concepta ’23

Concepta continued to thrive at Berea. She found math classes to be very helpful in her computer science curriculum so she added mathematics as a second major. And after brief labor assignments on campus at the Boone Tavern and the Log House Craft Gallery, Concepta has worked her way up to lead teaching assistant in the Computer Science Department. She oversees 22 teaching assistants in this role. This has helped her understand her discipline even better.

“One of my mentors said that you don’t really understand something until you have to teach it,” she said. “It’s why I think I even enjoy it more because it’s not about the teaching only. I am equally learning from the times I’m teaching others. It’s helped me in my own academics because I am relearning what I learned.”

This past summer, Concepta completed her third internship with Microsoft, this time in person. In previous years, she worked remotely to connect the online version of Excel with the desktop version. She was also able to network with software engineers who were the only women on their teams. In addition to all this success, Concepta has won two awards while attending Berea: the Russell Todd Award, an honor from the Labor Department for wise use of a student’s leisure time, and the Ballard-McConnell-Willis (BMW) Mathematics Scholarship, the most prestigious award offered by the Math Department. The BMW scholarship allowed Concepta to spend a semester at the University of Massachusetts, where she researched the intersection of math and computer science.

Still, Concepta says the most important lesson she has learned at Berea comes from the College motto, which inspires her to look past difference and focus on what she has in common with people, a valuable lesson that has helped her overcome barriers.

“Berea provided an opportunity to show my talents,” she said, “and has allowed me to learn more communicating, networking and public speaking. Because of Berea, I’m a lot more confident.”

Concepta has big plans for using what she’s learned at Berea. Graduate school is on the horizon, along with working in the industry to get valuable experience. But her ultimate goal is to return home to Uganda with the skills and knowledge needed to open a school for girls who want to code like her.

“I really, really am passionate about setting up a school back home that is not the traditional kind of teaching but more practical, skill-oriented,” Concepta said. “They could even learn programming, machine-learning or robotics.”

If her past and present success are any indication, Concepta will no doubt be inspiring more women and other underrepresented computer science students to follow in her footsteps.  

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