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An inspiring thank you letter all women in tech should read

(OPINION EDITORIAL) “We owe it to ourselves and future generations to disrupt and shift the culture, and create a more inclusive environment.”

Bringing positivity into the world

Fellow AG writers Jennifer Walpole and Taylor Leddin shared last month their UNFUCD assignment of thanking a teacher (here and here). Now, I would like to offer mine:

Dear Mary Dorman,

I feel that I should open this letter with an apology – for not comprehending your efforts to instill confidence in a 16 year old girl, and for not making more of the opportunities you opened up to me.

I owe you a lifetime of gratitude for recognizing and fueling the undying fascination I had for science and technology.

What was it that you saw? You may have realized that high school didn’t start out all that exciting for me. I vaguely recall signing up for a Computer Math class in ninth grade at John Foster Dulles Senior High, which was quite innovative in 1979. There was a teleprinter and an IBM card punch machine in the corner of the classroom, and I was fascinated how the cards and paper tape could contain information.

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That next year I was moved to a brand new and smaller high school – Willowridge Senior High School – as Dulles was overcrowded. At first I was disappointed, as there was no computer class or science club established at Willowridge.

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However, as one of my science teachers, you encouraged me not only to join – but also preside over — the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), which was dedicated to promoting engineering and technology careers.

You encouraged me to take on my first true leadership role.

I had no interest in engineering, but the desire to please a teacher who time and time again demonstrated confidence in me was invigorating.

Choosing the right path

While my other tenth grade teachers would just give me extra work because there weren’t enough eligible students to have an honors program or computer class, you went beyond. You gave me special assignments that I would complete on the school’s Commodore computer – I think I was the only student who ever used that computer its first year in-house. I learned how to create flowcharts, as well as how to use Microsoft BASIC.

“You can be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.”

The school administration notified my parents that they were having trouble accommodating me. I could continue at Willowridge, and be given extra advanced coursework. There just simply weren’t enough students to justify an honors program.

I was offered the choice to transfer back to my old school, where there was an honors program. After much debate and trepidation, I chose to transfer back to Dulles. I was sad to leave behind many friends and my favorite teacher – who encouraged me to spread my wings — but thought it was the best decision at the time.

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You were truly a gem amongst teachers in a time when young girls and women weren’t encouraged to pursue careers in STEM.

Had I known that, I might’ve chosen differently and stayed in that positive microcosm. You would’ve been disappointed to hear that I spent most of eleventh grade struggling to adjust. I was from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a lower middle class student who wasn’t from the more affluent neighborhoods surrounding Dulles.

The backlash

I disengaged and became withdrawn as I felt bullied in Chemistry class, by boys scoffing at any girls who showed an interest, being told that I should go back to Willowridge. Discouraged by my eleventh grade Honors English teacher who essentially said, “I set the “A” by Mary A.’s test score, and then distribute grades below that accordingly.” Even if in jest, that statement implied that the rest of the class would never excel or meet the highest standard. I rebelled – why bother trying?

You’d probably be even more disappointed to learn that although I enrolled in a Physics class taught by a female teacher — who had even received several “Teacher of the Year” awards — it was not a learning experience for me. I would raise my hand to answer a question – and never be called on. Instead, the same boys were always called on, the ones who huddled around the new Apple III while the rest of us were pushed out of the way, returning to our seats in the back of the room.

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I transferred over to Newspaper Journalism for the final semester, as my enthusiasm for science and technology dwindled.

Or so I thought. For you see, this letter is truly about UNFUCD, and finding the good where there’s been bad.

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It’s okay to be a “late bloomer,” and you can have multiple or concurrent careers in your lifetime.

After high school, I floundered a bit through a couple of years at college, and ultimately dropped out, but I did do well in an Introduction to Microcomputers course. I received an 89 in that 8 am class that I barely recall taking, simply from what I’d learned from you.

Rising up

Later I took a few classes at the Houston Area League of PC Users (HAL-PC) campus just for the fun of it, learning how to work with DOS, Lotus 123, and dBase III. I was encouraged by my Uncle Ronnie, who was a founding member of HAL-PC in 1982. He later helped me set up my first personal email account, and educated me about chain e-mail hoaxes and to vet on this site called “Snopes” in 1995. HAL-PC is the world’s largest PC user group.

I won’t bore you with the details, but you’ll be glad to know that I found other mentors when I went back to college ten years later, who encouraged and helped me and many other students focus our passion for biological sciences – and data.

I received a Bachelor of Sciences in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology from UT Austin at the tender young age of 33 years old, and even spent a month in Costa Rica for entomology field research.

Since then I’ve been an aquatic taxonomist, an environmental educator, a web developer, a water operator, and a drinking water quality specialist.

I now own my own water consulting business, partner in a data firm, and advocate for open source software development.

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The ripple effect

Most importantly, I’ve been an environmental educator, an afterschool program leader for Girlstart, and I currently serve on the Advisory Board for ChickTech Austin. Girlstart and ChickTech are wonderful non-profit organizations dedicated to engaging girls in STEM through education programs.

Because that’s the greatest lesson that you ever taught me — that young girls as well as under-represented socioeconomic groups need positive role models to guide and empower them to pursue their passions in science and technology.

We owe it to ourselves and future generations to disrupt and shift the culture, and create a more inclusive environment.

You also taught me that I can be a leader in that mission. For that, I thank you immensely.

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#UNFUCD

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Written By

Debbie Cerda is a seasoned writer and consultant, running Debra Cerda Consulting as well as handling business development at data-driven app development company, Blue Treble Solutions. She's a proud and active member of Austin Film Critics Association and the American Homebrewers Association, and Outreach Director for science fiction film festival, Other Worlds Austin. She has been very involved in the tech scene in Austin for over 15 years, so whether you meet her at Sundance Film Festival, SXSWi, Austin Women in Technology, or BASHH, she'll have a connection or idea to help you achieve business success. At the very least, she can recommend a film to watch and a great local craft beer to drink.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Danny Brown

    September 13, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Hi there Debbie, and thanks so much for writing this letter – what a powerful statement about encouragement, and sticking to your beliefs! So thankful for Mary Dorman and all she meant to you, and others like you!

    #unfucd

  2. Pingback: Y Combinator co-founder's advice: Don't fail faster, just don't fail - The American Genius

  3. Pingback: Women in IT more likely to be promoted than men - The American Genius

  4. Pingback: The amazing impact of practicing sincere gratitude - The American Genius

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