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In a field dominated by men, young UNCC grad makes her mark. ‘We need representation’

Devna Bose
·8 min read

Maya Hamilton’s bio on Twitter is short and sweet.

“I code,” it reads, followed by her social media handle. But her journey in STEM has been anything but simple.

Hamilton, 22, will be graduating from the University of North Carolina Charlotte this month with a computer science degree that she fought hard to get, being one of the few Black women in the department.

Her determination came from an early love for technology.

When she wasn’t outside playing with friends, Hamilton was glued to a computer screen throughout her childhood.

“Back then, social media didn’t exist,” she said. “So I would play games on the computer. I like seeing all the different things on it, trying to figure out how it all worked.”

She became her family’s designated IT support person — when her parents struggled to make something work on the computer, they called on Maya. They still do.

But she didn’t decide on pursuing a career in computer science until taking a computer programming course in the 10th grade.

In the class, she learned how to make and program things like a digital calculator, scratching an itch she didn’t know she had — she wanted to understand how the technology worked.

“It was satisfying just to see how you could build a calculator from scratch and work hard to get the programming done,” she said. “I loved the feeling after the program actually ran and worked perfectly.”

So after graduating, the Raleigh native started at UNCC with the intention of majoring in computer science, but her math grades weren’t high enough.

Hamilton had long struggled with math. She’d watch YouTube videos and Khan Academy lessons for hours to try to understand the concepts. Only through hours of outside work did she manage to get through her math classes in high school, but her grades still weren’t high enough to let her enter college as a computer science major.

But just like Hamilton had persevered in high school, she was determined to find a way forward, and after a year, her hard work paid off. She entered her sophomore year of college as a computer science major.

She remembers walking into her first Introduction to Computer Science course overwhelmed with the sheer amount of students — there were over a hundred students crammed into tight seats. The rows seemed endless.

However, despite the sea of students, she quickly realized there were only one or two who looked like her.

Later, she would be hit with a second realization: She had also been one of the only Black students in her high school class, too.

A community of support

Over the course of the next few years, Hamilton would make a point to reach out to the other Black students in her classes.

“I’d try to sit with them and talk to them because who else do we have?” she said. “I would start a group chat, so we could all get through the class. ... We had a sense of community.”

She said that community she built was one of the reasons she was able to graduate.

“You’re in classes with people who had been coding for years,” she said. “We felt more comfortable helping each other than getting help from the white males in class who said, ‘This is easy.’”

And from those group chats, many of them said that’s what helped them pass the class, too, she said.

“It feels good to have someone who looks like you, compared to being in a sea where you feel alone.”

Black people are largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields, especially women. Research shows that having role models of the same race and gender help increase success and retention in the field.

UNCC’s website lists 60 people in its Computer Science Department faculty, most of them men. Hamilton took her first class with a Black female professor — the only Black woman on the department’s teaching faculty — during her sophomore year.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s a Black woman with her PhD,’” she said after her first class with Dr. Dale-Marie Wilson. After Hamilton was accepted into the Computer Science Department, Wilson became her academic advisor.

“Every single Black woman here says if it wasn’t for Dr. Wilson, they would have dropped out of the major,” Hamilton said.

Wilson makes a point to reach out to Black students in computer science at UNCC, especially women, to show them support — because she knows what it’s like to feel alone.

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Wilson came to New York University in 1993 to study math, which was housed in the same building as the university’s computer science department.

Maya Hamilton poses for a portrait in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
Maya Hamilton poses for a portrait in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

While an undergraduate, she was approached by an administrator who encouraged her to explore a career in computer science, so Wilson majored in CS. After graduation, she worked at a software computing firm and later earned her master’s degree and PhD in computer science at Auburn University.

In many of those environments, she was the only Black woman. During her undergraduate career at NYU, she had learned how important it was to have a community to lean on for support. So after arriving at UNCC in 2006, she started reaching out to Black students to offer support because of the unique challenges students of color face in a field where they’re outnumbered.

I wanted them to know there was somebody in their corner, not only academically but also personally,” Wilson said in an interview with The Observer. “I know sometimes we have struggles that traditional students might not have. And I want them to succeed.”

Hamilton said she had unpleasant interactions with white male classmates who would take over the computer during lab projects, dominating the classwork and not acknowledging her input.

“If I wasn’t a woman or Black, he would have listened to me,” she said. “I also tried to be a part of groups in classes with other students, but those students don’t seem to pick me … seems like they don’t want us in.”

Hamilton said these experiences have only better prepared her for the corporate world “because there’s not many of me in the workplace anyway.

“I feel prepared to speak up for myself and ask questions without feeling ashamed,” she said. “Even if I feel there’s no space for me, I make space for me.

“I deserve to be here.”

Her photo goes viral

Musical artist SZA dropped her debut album Ctrl in 2017, the same year Hamilton started college.

For the next four years, Hamilton studied in the library listening to “Drew Barrymore,” she would walk from class to class listening to “Supermodel” and when she hung out with friends, they’d listen to “The Weekend,” all songs from the album.

The album’s release marked the beginning of a journey for Hamilton, so naturally, she wanted to commemorate the end with the album, too.

The album cover features SZA surrounded by a graveyard of old computer monitors. When Hamilton first saw the cover art her freshman year, she knew she wanted to try to recreate it as a senior.

First, she thought about where she could physically find old computers, but soon realized how tricky that would be. So Hamilton learned how to edit images herself on Photoshop.

“I worked on it for two weeks. I was just so determined,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to blow up like it did.”

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Since posting the photo on Twitter on April 26, it’s received more than 333,000 likes and been retweeted more than 40,000 times, and it’s been reposted on several social media pages that promote women and Black women in STEM. SZA herself even acknowledged it, posting a congratulatory tweet of her own.

“I was so shocked,” Hamilton said. “I’m definitely not a person who likes being in the spotlight, but I’m happy because it went viral. Not because it’s me but because I’ve been getting countless messages from young girls asking me for advice.”

Hamilton said one of her goals is to make computer science seem more attainable for young Black girls and women. On Instagram, she shared an inspirational message about her own journey in computer science. She said despite the challenges she faced, including a professor who even encouraged Hamilton to drop out of the major, she’s worked at global companies like SAP and Toyota and became the first software engineer in her family.

“Most importantly, I am leaving my legacy at UNC Charlotte by partnering and conducting research with the computing and informatics department to create a guide for freshman women of color to make sure that they have the tools to achieve greatness in computing,” the post reads.

“When you don’t see change or representation, do something about it. I thank God every day for the strength to persist and for blessing me with so many opportunities to be an example.”

After graduation, Hamilton will move to Dallas and work as a software engineer for J.P. Morgan Chase.

We need representation,” she said. “In the beginning, I felt like I didn’t fit in, but I’ve built my confidence now. I’m big on making space for me and giving back to younger girls because I didn’t have anyone to look up to that was young like me. I want to be that representation.”