Announcing Zipwhip’s Women in STEM Scholarship Recipient

We believe an inclusive culture is crucial to the success of all technology companies. That’s why we chose to offer our first-ever scholarship award to one woman helping progress the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). We were astounded by the response we received and the stories we heard from more than 140 women who are working hard to ensure their places in fields traditionally dominated by men.

After much consideration, we’re thrilled to announce that our Women in STEM Scholarship has been awarded to Larissa Yaholkovsky!

Larissa is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Application Development from North Seattle College, which she plans to use to develop technology that will ease communication across linguistic barriers. We talked with her about how she ended up in technology, why inherent bias in programming often leads to marginalization and ways all women can be strong role models for girls.

Watch the interview here and be sure to check out her full essay response below.

Larissa’s scholarship essay:

Linguistics, as a field, is fantastic, profound, and full of possibilities. One of the many things I learned in my linguistics degree is how many people are negatively impacted by stigmas, policies, and lack of accessibility in relation to their language capacities. Linguists have also produced a staggering amount of data showing the ways in which women and other marginalized groups are treated and perceived differently: the way these groups speak is consistently perceived as annoying, grating, unprofessional, and uneducated, even as the data show the strength of these communities to influence language evolution. There is no dearth of people who can and should be helped by technology. I see the field of computational linguistics as one for those linguistically-minded people with the skill and passion to address these problems.

After college, I took a job as an annotator for the Cortana project, which gave me my first idea of how linguistic models can be implemented in technology. There are AI technologies to parse and produce human speech, programs to analyze Twitter data to chart trends, automatic translation applications, and more. This prompted me to pursue a higher degree in this field, and I was accepted to Brandeis University’s Computational Linguistics field, pending the summer completion of a basic programming class. Although I turned down the offer for financial reasons, I did follow through by taking an intro Python class at my local community college.

The work in this class immediately clicked with me, and I started envisioning the possibilities of what I could create if I were to fully learn the skills of application development. Now, in the first year of my current degree, I am working on my first deliverable, workable application with mobile, tablet and desktop interfaces. It’s complex and robust, requiring a team of students to collaborate to build it from the ground up. This app is one that any business might use to allow users to create orders remotely, implementing database structures to store and provide data. This project has been exciting and challenging, but more than that, it is meaningful because it was my first opportunity to program something valuable and useful.

Once I started this B.A.S. program, I saw, for the first time in a long time, a vision for my future. There are many ways I can help facilitate communication, information storage and retrieval, or just ease of access using the skills I’ve already learned, and I still have a year left ahead of me! I’m inspired to eventually combine my passions for linguistics and programming to create technologies that can help people communicate across linguistic barriers, even between people who are Deaf, blind, or have any other specific needs for communication. Accessibility is an issue that we, as a society, are just beginning to fully understand and embrace, and as our lives are becoming more and more entwined with technology, our differently-abled peers need to be brought along with us! Inherent bias in programming is a known problem, which I believe can be best addressed by bringing in a truly diverse generation of programmers, welcoming of talented programmers of any sex, race, or ability. In five years, I hope to be working in the field, implementing accessible technologies, and working to bring other diverse voices and perspectives to the field. Eventually, I aim to make it into the field of computational linguistics, either with a company or an academic institution, developing the technology that we need to support our diverse international community.

One obstacle I see in creating this inclusive future is in STEM education. Much of the work of preparing young women for a STEM future is in helping them unlearn their internalized misogyny. What many people see as a lack of female interest in STEM is actually a lack of confidence, which is reinforced insidiously, and sometimes unintentionally, by many people throughout their lives. One simple solution is to enforce less stringent grading policies, as many women can be discouraged by a low passing grade. I know this feeling all too well, as I value my GPA not only as a way to show my potential, but also to prove to myself and others that I belong. Making these high scores more achievable will help bolster the confidence of female programmers who were already just as good as other candidates, but who just didn’t know it.

After seven years of spinning my wheels with a Linguistics degree, I’m ecstatic for the opportunity to get into the dynamic field of computer science. Zipwhip’s generous scholarship will fund an entire quarter of my degree, and will allow me to immerse myself in my studies, free of the distraction of financial worries. I am grateful for this opportunity to redirect my life and contribute to a brighter, more inclusive future.

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