For long-distance runner and computer science student Caitlin Parra, software engineering is like a marathon. While programming came naturally to her from the beginning, what wasn’t always easy was the uphill climb against the stereotypes she faced as a female in computing.
A computer science student with a focus on software engineering, Parra took her first programming class in high school. “It’s kind of funny, but I hated that class. Not because of the programming, I enjoyed it and realized I was good at it, but I was the only girl,” says Parra.
Her male classmates noticed, and they found ways to single her out. They would mock her work, tell her to drop the class, and didn’t recognize her accomplishments. “One of my classmates told me to quit and go work at McDonald’s. I think it was because I’m Hispanic and that’s an inaccurate stereotype, but it was hurtful,” says Parra.
But that didn’t stop her from succeeding. Near the end of her first programming class, students were tasked with designing a game, and a few of the games would be entered into a competition. Parra designed a Winnie the Pooh maze game that was selected, and she ended up winning the whole competition.
This success reinspired Parra’s goal to pursue computer science, despite her naysayers. With encouragement from her father, a Mason grad, she decided to follow in his footsteps. “My dad always pushed me to know what I wanted to do and to go after it,” says Parra.
At Mason, Parra sees more diverse representation in STEM. “When I came to Mason, I joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and it was amazing to be surrounded by people like me,” she says.
She’s leaned on the classmates and friends she’s made in SHPE by sharing experiences with each other on the challenges they face in their respective fields.
“I get to hear about the challenges of civil engineers, mechanical engineers, information technology majors, and it’s great to know we aren’t alone when classes are difficult, we face stereotypes, or when balancing school, work, and family becomes hard,” says Parra.
Outside of Mason, Parra has also succeeded in finding opportunities at her dream company, Apple. She started working at one of their local retail stores, and this past summer she landed an opportunity in their career experience program that allows current employees to explore different aspects of Apple’s business. “I spent most of the summer remotely testing wireless charging devices. The experience validated my interest in automation and software, which I hope I can pursue full-time after graduating,” says Parra.
Even with her success, Parra knows the marathon isn’t over. There’s still work to be done on bringing more women into computing and engineering, she says, so that no other woman will face the barriers she did.
“What keeps me motivated when classes are hard or I feel alone in classes is my mission to make an impact. Everything I do is about making a difference,” says Parra.