by Andrea Poet

Cecilia Avila, a fall 2020 graduate of UIC’s computer science program, is part of GET Cities’ inaugural cohort of the GET Chicago Fellowship program, which launched this month. GET stands for Gender Equality in Tech. As one of 20 area women to receive this award, Avila will spend the next nine months working as part of a team that examines issues facing women or minorities in tech and proposes solutions. She’ll also have a mentor in the industry to help navigate the start of her career.

Avila’s interest in computer science began at the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago, where she was part of the school’s first graduating class. The school sought to have its students graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

“I didn’t know what tech was, so when they told us we had to choose a focus for our associate’s degree, I chose computer science and networking,” Avila said. “I had no background in it at all.”

She received a scholarship to attend UIC, commuting from her home in the greater Chicago Lawn neighborhood. Avila was a very active UIC student: she helped to start the student organization known as LOGiCA, or Latinx Organization for Growth in Computing and Academics, and served as the secretary, treasurer, and co-president. She attended the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference and the Grace Hopper Celebration, was a teaching assistant for a UIC programming design course and for Break Through Tech, and danced with Movimiento Latino.

Still, Avila describes her time at UIC as difficult, initially.

“I think I was scared of computer science,” she said. “I noticed when I first went to my classes, there were not many women, like I didn’t belong. I wouldn’t sit in the front. I felt like I was invading something.”

“Some of my classmates had been coding since they were 12, some were much older and already working,” she added. “I felt trapped, and that put me behind.”

Avila felt scared to use the computer science department’s student lounge, a popular space for studying and socializing—she never saw any other women there, either. The feelings of imposter syndrome were difficult to shake. In her second year, her CS 251 Data Structures course represented a near-breaking point. She went to her faculty advisor and said she wanted to switch majors.

“She said no, I don’t think you’ve given it a chance,” Avila recalled. “She told me to focus on anyone else, not to compare myself. The only competition is myself.”

Through discussions with her advisor and others in the computer science department—including two members of the Break Through Tech Chicago leadership, Elena Lathos and Dale Reed—Avila grew more confident. She volunteered regularly at department events and became a teaching assistant. She realized the computer science lounge was a resource for her. There she met tutors and friends, including the ones with whom she eventually co-founded LOGiCA.

Avila is excited to make connections in the tech industry and to gain the mentorship that comes with the GET Chicago Fellowship. She’s looking forward to working on the group project, which will likely involve creating an application or bot aimed at solving an issue that women in tech face. She hopes to work in software engineering and to continue her support of minorities in tech, increasing exposure to STEM in communities that do not have access. And she will continue her work with an off-campus dance group, Evolución Latina Dance Company.

GET Cities will hold a series of public events, including career talks and demo days, where you can learn more about Avila and the other fellows’ projects. Follow the organization on Twitter or visit its website for more information.