When Mehak Lodhi, Tegan Chin and Ayesha Mohammed walked into their first app development class, they were each struck by the unlikelihood of three women of color, in a tech class, taught by a female, African American professor.
“It wasn’t all dudes,” Lodhi, ’20, said. “We sat next to each other and started talking.”
As cybersecurity majors, the trio understands that women and people of color are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM fields. Lohdi is Pakistani-American, Chin is Chinese-American. Mohammed identifies as Indian, and both she and Lodhi are Muslim. The many layers of intersectionality further bolstered their early bonding and they became friends as well as classmates.
“It started small, with homework, study sessions and stuff,” Lodhi said. “And then later on, we all started grabbing lunch, getting sushi.”
“And soon we were like, ‘Hey, let’s take the next course together — and the next course,’” Chin, 20, joined in.
“It was really awesome — we were all so comfortable with each other,” Mohammed, ‘20, agreed.
All three young women decided to commit to Maryville’s then-new app development minor, with the encouragement of Stacy Hollins, PhD, assistant dean for the Simon School of Business and associate professor of Information Systems. Hollins, who instructed the class in which they all first met, kept an open-door policy. She supported them when they became discouraged about their ability to master the work and listened as they talked about the difficulty of being a woman in the field.
“They had some of the best ideas in the room but sometimes they were afraid to voice them,” Hollins said. “Sometimes, as women, our voices are questioned. I had that experience in my career, too.”
Hollins found herself becoming the mentor she wished she’d had. When Lodhi asked — and asked, and asked again — about the idea of the four of them attending a 2019 Women in Cybersecurity conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hollins found a way to make it work using grant money. Some of the young men in Hollins’ classes expressed jealousy about her attention to these female students. She turned it into a teaching moment.
“I talked to them about how many opportunities they have that the women don’t have,” Hollins said.
This past fall, Mohammed and Chin formed Maryville’s first Women in Cybersecurity student organization.
“We had a whole bunch of girls coming up like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know we had one of these here — when can I join? How can I join?” Chin said “My goal is to form that community and to reach out to other majors that aren’t in cybersecurity, because cybersecurity touches so many different parts of other industries, like health care and design.”
“I’m really empowering them to empower others,” Hollins said.
Lodhi, Chin and Mohammed are also taking on other leadership roles and becoming more emboldened beyond the realm of tech. Lodhi is president of the Muslim Student Association and communications chair of the broader Cyber Saints organization. She and Chin serve in Maryville’s Student Government Association. Mohammed, who once thought of herself as shy, is more self-assured. Her success in the app development program increased her confidence to tackle coding in other classes and as she eyes life after her graduation in May, she feels good about the future.
“That has helped me move into who I am now,” Mohammed said.
As Lodhi prepares for her own imminent graduation, she already knows she’ll look back fondly on the bonds forged in that first app development class.
“It’s really built almost a family vibe, which is what Maryville is about,” Lodhi said.