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PhDoula: Five do-overs since my first Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing

This post originally appeared on the blog PhDoula and is re-posted here with permission from the author, Alexandra Holloway.

Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing is an annual event bringing together thousands of women from different technical computing specialties and at different stages of their career. Attendees include undergraduates considering computer science as a major, graduate students choosing their research direction, recent graduates looking for a job, women in industry, professors, researchers, and recruiters. It is a diverse, funky, exciting, inspiring, and nurturing environment of two thousand women, all of whom are smart, brilliant, beautiful, and different in their own right.

This year will be my fourth time attending, which makes me a Grace Hopper veteran. I first heard about Grace Hopper Celebration from my room mate from CRA-W Grad Cohort — a similar but much smaller mentoring program for graduate student women — when I asked my room mate how on earth she knew all these people. She was saying “Hi,” calling people by name, and giving hugs to everybody!

“How do you know everyone already?” I asked her.

“Some women I know from last year’s Grad Cohort,” she replied. “But some women I see basically twice a year: at the Grad Cohort and then again at Grace Hopper Celebration.”

“What’s that?” I asked. Casually hiding her surprise that I had neer heard of Grace Hopper Celebration, she explained it to me, and that night in our hotel room I looked it up and bookmarked it.

When Grace Hopper Celebration came around that year, my advisor asked if there are any women that would like to go, because our university was a sponsor and received a few spaces for student attendees. Of course, I replied immediately in the affirmative, and off I went!

Now that I have been three times to Grace Hopper Celebration (this year will mark my third time as a contributor) and twice to the CRA-W Grad Cohort, I can look back on my first Grace Hopper Celebration visit a bit critically.

My first year, Grace Hopper Celebration was held in Keystone, Colorado, a small resort town situated in the mountains among an aspen forest. The trees were just starting to turn in ones and twos: blots of color among a sea of green leaves. I was driven from the airport in a shuttle and looked out onto the picturesque landscape with wide eyes. I was young, impressionable, and pregnant.

Yup, I was about 24 weeks along in my pregnancy. I knew I was carrying a boy, and I had just returned from a trip abroad — a delayed honeymoon — before having time to buy clothes that fit me. My belly had just started getting too big for my pants. It happened so suddenly that I was ill-prepared, wardrobe-wise, for the change in my figure. I was a hot mess, unbuttoning my jeans and praying that my fitted t-shirts did not bust into holes stretched over my growing belly. When my mother saw me at the airport on my return from Grace Hopper, she was shocked at my fashion sense, but at the time, I figured that is just an extension of the typical graduate student lifestyle. Right? Please tell me I am right.

Anyway, back to the point — I could have done a better job. As an early(ish) graduate student, my main role was to be receptive to mentoring and to meet people that would help me in my career path. I see that now, in hindsight, but at the time I did not recognize these goals. Here were my top five mistakes from the first year. Every year I go back, I get a do-over and do my best to avoid these.

Do-Over #5. Eat lunch and dinner.

At CRA-W Grad Cohort, one of the rules was that no two women from the same university could sit together at lunch. You had to learn to network, and to meet other women. But here, at Grace Hopper Celebration, there was no such rule, and even if there was, there is no way to enforce it with 2000 attendees. So attendees would sit with the people they knew more often than not, and I, seeing this social norm, followed suit. Not a good idea. Now I know that it is best to sit at a table where you know no one. Even better: sit at a table where you know no one, and everyone is different from you. Is everyone older? They have more experience. Is everyone younger? Maybe they have questions. But if everyone is exactly like you, there is no way you can broaden your experience. Challenge yourself.

Do-Over #4. Use the room mate.

I was at Grace Hopper Celebration on an underwriter scholarship, and, like all scholarship recipients, I had a room mate. Actually, in this year, we were in a three-room cabin in the mountains of Keystone, Colorado, and I had two house mates. My house mates were amazing. They asked me about pregnancy and married life, about the proverbial work-life balance (as if there is one), about what I will do once I have the baby (hint: stay in school). On our last night in Colorado, we all went shopping to the outlets nearby and my lovely room mates bought me a shirt that actually covered my entire front. Maybe it is silly, but I was moved.

But most of the day, my house mates (who knew each other) would be off on their own, and, in pregnancy-related discomfort (more on this later), I left them to themselves. I did not go to see their posters at the poster session; I did not ask for introductions to other women; I did not sit with them and their colleagues at lunch. But this was wrong. Use your room mate (or room mates, if you are lucky enough to have two) — use them as mentors if they are more experienced at Grace Hopper Celebration than you are; use them as friends if they are new like you; use them as a sounding-board for your elevator pitch for your research.

My room mates approached me on the second day and said, with a sly grin, “We are thinking of taking a drive up to the summit, instead of one of the sessions. Are you in?” I considered for a moment, wondering if it is OK to skip sessions, and if we could leave the conference grounds without arousing suspicion among the organizers. Hesitating a little, I said that it sounds like great fun, and that I would certainly come.

As we arrived to the summit, the weather shifted dramatically, from cool and clear autumn to cold and foggy winter. Not another person and not another vehicle was within sight: it was just us. It began to snow in large, fluffy flakes. The electricity in the air made our hair stand straight up, and lightning bolts noiselessly crashed all around us. We giggled and photographed and huddled in our insufficient jackets — and bonded. We formed relationships which would survive the test of time and geography — relationships we could later fall back on in our professional and personal lives, because we had this shared experience.

Do-Over #3. Couch potato networking.

During the course of Grace Hopper Celebration, my baby, whom I called Galahad ever since knowing I was pregnant, grew as well. I would like to think it is because of my rock hard abs that, one day into the Celebration, I started getting rib pain. My ribs were expanding to fit my high-carried fetus and I was in pain from the pressure in my ribcage from about noon until I went to bed every night. I did not tell anybody (except my amazing room mates) because I had never enjoyed complaining, especially to strangers. Even strangers that are there for the express purpose of caring for and mentoring me.

Half the day, my ribs would hurt so much that I could not sit up. Sometimes I would go back to my room and lie down; other times, I would sprawl out sideways on one of the low arm chairs in the conference area and try not to moan. Both of these were missed networking opportunities. Now I see that it is OK to sprawl in pain rather than attend a session, as long as I am doing something to further my career.

See, I had no idea where my academic career was going. Here I was, not even half-way through my first pregnancy, not even two years through grad school, and with no idea where my research interests were. Every class I took was fascinating for the first three weeks; every project I undertook was interesting only for the first half. I knew I was a fantastic teacher but had never undertaken any serious research project. I knew I wanted to be a professor eventually — but a professor of what? How do you find the one thing that really turns you on?

These are all questions that, though they cannot be answered by someone else, they can point you and your mind and heart into a direction. Other women’s experiences can influence how you experience yourself. Maybe I am getting a little hippy-dippy. But my point is that I was not using this time to the best of my abilities. I could have been meeting women in a higher position than myself and asking for advice; I could have been meeting my future mentor; I could have been learning with others, rather than suffering alone!

Do-Over #2. Tell your secret.

Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones talking, but I posted an anonymous advertisement on the bulletin board:

Looking to connect with other pregnant graduate students and those with kids.

I added my e-mail address and hoped for the best. The truth is that I did not know what I was looking for. Support? Advice? Encouragement? I did not have any concrete questions but I wanted to know that I was not alone, that my experience was not unique. In some ways, I suppose, I wanted validation. I wanted someone to say, “I know things will get rough, but you can do it, because I did it.” Though I did receive a few notes, mainly by other participants pinning replies to the same bulletin board, I never replied to them, in part because I did not know what I wanted to say, and in part because I did not want to give away my secret.

I had only told my room mates, and mentioned it once at lunch. One of the women, another student, lit up: “Do you have maternity leave at your university?” I answered honestly that I did not know. She persisted: “You know, it should be covered by the union. They bargained for it just last year. It is brand new this year. You should look it up.” After lunch, she and I both went to the computers and found the relevant sections. She was glad to help me, and I was glad for the help, because until then, I had never considered my rights and my future as an employee of the university.

It was not until the last hour of the last day, when several of us were loading the bus, that I told one more person about my pregnancy. She was a young woman with a large baby, and introduced herself as a professor. We chatted briefly about pregnancy, and exchanged information. It seemed so natural and inconsequential at the time — especially as I had such a reverence for professors because of what I now see was mild impostor syndrome — but I was calmed by her easy nature and friendly manner. This small event which I had put out of my mind as an impossibility because of the difference in rank, this easy exchange of words and information, this event was probably the best thing that happened to me at Grace Hopper Celebration that year. Today, the professor who befriended me continues to mentor and support me through my final years of graduate school. I told my secret to the best person I could possibly meet.

Do-Over #1. Meet the speakers.

I had attended a great many talks, but one in particular still speaks to me today. It was a talk I had heard before, at CRA-W, given by a graduate student that had changed direction several times in the course of her studies. She was explaining the same feelings I was having: She would take an introductory class and enjoy it immensely, but not enjoy the follow-up class. It took her a long time to find a dissertation topic. She explained several ways that dissertation topics come into existence: the extended course project, the advisor’s list of unfinished work, the stroke of genius, and others. She struck me as someone I would love to be friends with — but she was so smart! so accomplished! What would I have to offer by speaking with her?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now that I am also a speaker at Grace Hopper Celebration, I know that speakers are people too. I love it when people attend my talks, and I love it even more when they stay afterwards to tell me that the talk was useful to them, my nervousness did not show, or even that my animation skills in the slides were top-notch. Which, I assure you, they are not. I love it when people tweet about my talk. I love it when people come to ask me for advice, or ask for my contact information in the case they have questions about something I said. I love just knowing that someone, somewhere, was affected by my talk.

I did approach this particular speaker, and I told her that I had heard her talk before and I really admired her. She was surprised: “What, me?” Laughing heartily, she chatted with me about grad school, clearly expressing that she considered us equals. She and I are still friends today.

Since then, I make it a point to meet every speaker that inspires me. Even if she is the president of some fancy corporation, or the first author of an influential paper, or simply the woman that said something that really resonated with me. I introduce myself and say, “What you said just now, I really took to heart. Thank you for a great talk.” If we happen to meet again, I can say, “We met at Grace Hopper last year. I loved your talk.” This usually leads to an invitation to join her lunch table, which — by the way — I always gladly accept.