Manali Shirsekar, a third-year studying computer science, won the 2020-2021 Girls in STEM Scholarship Award in recognition of her leadership and advocacy for minority participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers within the NC State community. Girls Who STEM, an organization focused on the education, empowerment and inclusion of women in STEM, presented the award.
Each year, Girls Who STEM awards one student $500 from an accredited university who is enrolled in a STEM undergraduate program with the goal of encouraging female leadership within the STEM community and promoting educational efforts and opportunities for girls interested in STEM programs. Shirsekar, however, has taken the message of the scholarship one step further.
“Women are not the only people we are trying to uplift,” Shirsekar said. “It is every single underrepresented gender, minority and person from different income groups.”
Shirsekar explained programs like Girls Who STEM are important in engaging minority demographics because they increase people's exposure to different opportunities they might have otherwise missed. She noted how her story proves the success of these programs as she transitions from participating in minority-targeted summer research programs to planning community wide computing events. Shirsekar said the success of these diversification programs are essential to the future of more than just the STEM community.
“When you have a group of developers and they are so accustomed to one way of thinking or one way of life, their solutions aren’t going to reach the population in the way that they need to,” Shirsekar said. “The best way to do that is to [diversify] the workforce. The perspectives from diverse women, people from different income groups and different races are so essential to a successful project, and I think we are limiting ourselves by not reaching out to these communities that are not represented.”
One way Shirsekar personally hopes to encourage diversity in STEM is by increasing community members’ exposure to STEM careers such as computer science.
Shirsekar is currently leading NC State’s annual coding event, DiamondHacks. This is a beginner-level hacking competition meant to expose participants to the world of computer science in a low-stress environment. A key feature of this event is the ability for participants to network and get involved with the STEM community.
In addition to planning events aimed at exposing people to STEM, Shirsekar is also hoping to live up to the Girls in STEM Scholarship Award by increasing retention of minority demographics in STEM within the NC State community.
“I haven’t looked too terribly much into it, but from my experience, I feel like there is a lot of excitement when you are a freshman and you are just getting started, but as soon as you age out of those transitional programs, you lose some of that support and excitement, and that's when your classes start getting really tricky and you sometimes need even more support,” Shirsekar said.
Shirsekar said she doesn't know how she wants to improve the retention of students interested in STEM, but she is thinking of focusing her attention on enhancing support systems and mentorship programs for minorities in STEM within NC State.
Some of Shirsekar’s current leadership and advocacy roles on the NC State campus include serving as the president of NC State’s Women in Computer Science organization and acting as a prominent member of NC State’s Computer Science Ambassador program*. Shirsekar said these programs allowed her to solidify her love for STEM.
Shirsekar compares her path to finding STEM as a trial-and-error experience. She noted how trying new things and exposing herself to new experiences helped her find her passion. She advises all incoming students to do the same.
“Don’t box yourself in too soon,” Shirsekar said. “When I came into college, I thought I wasn’t really someone who would want to get into coding, and I was still iffy on the math part… sometimes you just need a little more time, a little more exposure and sometimes more maturity. As you get older, you might find that some things you used to not like, you actually like now, so don’t box yourself in.”
Shirsekar said she plans to save the scholarship money and use it to further her own education efforts as she considers attending graduate school after graduation. She is also planning to use her position as a leader and advocate within the STEM community to continue to empower people from all walks of life to consider computer science.
“Stay open minded,” Shirsekar said. “Try as many different things as you can and... give computer science a try. You are going to be surprised by how versatile it is and just how many different facets there are in this major.”
*Edited with correct information