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Google Looks to Black Universities for Diversity


Google software engineer and Google In Residence Sabrina Williams, right, talks with students including, from left, freshmen Lucretia Williams, Alanna Walton, and Christopher Hocutt

Google software engineer and Google In Residence Sabrina Williams, right, talks with students including, from left, freshmen Lucretia Williams, Alanna Walton, and Christopher Hocutt


The tech industry is driving the U.S. economy into the future, but not everyone is sharing in the prosperity.

Only six percent of Facebook employees are Hispanic, Black or African-American. Just four percent of Twitter employees are Hispanic, Black or African-American.

Those numbers are small compared to the entire US workforce. Twelve percent of the entire U.S. workforce is Black or African-American. Sixteen percent of the U.S. workforce is Latino.

Now Google is teaming up with some historically black colleges to provide more opportunities for African-Americans to work in the tech industry.

Historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were established in the 1800s to help black Americans get a higher education. Until the 1950s, many universities excluded blacks. Today, all races can attend HBCUs.

Google began a program in 2013 called "Google In Residence" at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. As part of the program, Google sent a software engineer to teach computer science classes at Howard.

Legand Burge III is the head of the Computer Science Department at Howard University. Burge graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1998. When he graduated, he was the first African-American in the university's history to complete a master's degree.

Burge said a big part of the diversity problem starts earlier than university.

"Today, if you look at where many African-Americans come from, those high school institutions, they're not properly teaching computer science."

Burge started a program at Howard called "Pre-Freshmen in Computer Science" in 2012. The program's goal is to help students reach the level of ability they would need before starting university classes. The program is similar to Google's own Computer Science Summer Institute.

Howard then partnered with Google to bring an engineer to teach a beginner computer science class. Any student who wanted could take the class.

Google then decided to share this program with other HBCUs in 2014. Amos Johnson is an associate professor of computer science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He said that having a Google engineer at the school helps students see the choices they have.

"The most important thing that Google is doing is actually just being present on campus… Students may have never, ever been exposed to any Google employees… So by having a Google employee (directly) on campus… That opens up the possibility in their mind that they could actually… be there."

Johnson said the people hiring at tech companies usually only think about one type of person.

"So if the pattern is you only see white males from Stanford and MIT and Berkeley, and they look a certain way, that creates a pattern in an interviewer's mind that these are the types of people that are coders."

Andrea Lawrence is the head of the Computer and Information Sciences department at Spelman College. Spelman opened in Atlanta, Georgia in 1881. Lawrence said diversity is important because it lets people see different sides of a problem.

"Different people bring… different backgrounds to a problem… If all the people in the room have the same background and the same ideas, they are likely not to find a good solution or they may not find the best solution."

Burge says many minority students say they feel they do not belong in the tech industry. Sajid Hussain is the head of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Hussain said that the small size of HBCUs causes problems for the students.

"Because HBCUs are small… we can give them more personal attention… But then, because of small size, we don't get so much attention from the major companies."

Marc Fisher is the Google engineer teaching at Fisk. He said he knew nothing about Fisk before applying to teach in the Google program.

An important part of getting a job at a large tech company is first getting an internship with that company. Before the Google In Residence program, Fisk had only one student ever complete an internship at Google.

The Google In Residence program is also working with students out of the classroom. The engineers help students write résumés, prepare for interviews and understand the culture at big tech companies.

Over the past three years, the program has had success. After the first year of the program, two Fisk students completed internships. Next summer as many as six Fisk students will have Google internships.

Since the program started, Google has hired two Howard students directly after they graduated. Before the program, there were never any directly hired graduates of any HBCUs.

But, Burge said, many minority students say they feel they do not belong in the tech industry. Many feel that if they fail, they are representing every other person of their ethnic group. Some feel they are only getting hired because the company is trying to increase its diversity.

That is why Burge said it is important that minority students see more people who look like them in the industry. Lawrence added that because the tech industry will only get bigger, including all people is important.

"I just really think that it's so important that we reach out and get everyone we can in this… for the future of our country and also for the future of the young people involved."

I'm Pete Musto.

Pete musto reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

Now it's your turn. How do companies in your country try to increase diversity? Is diversity important in every industry? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

prosperityn. the state of being successful usually by making a lot of money

workforcen. the number of people in a country or area who are available for work

softwaren. the programs that run on a computer and perform certain functions

graduate(d) – v. to earn a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

master’s degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree
diversityn. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

institution(s) – n. an established organization

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college or school

exposedadj. caused to experience something or to be influenced or affected by something

hiring v. giving work or a job to someone in exchange for wages

pattern n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done

certainadj. used to refer to something or someone that is not named specifically

interviewern. the person who talks with and asks questions of someone who is being considered for a job or other position

coder(s) – n. a computer programmer

background(s) – n. the experiences, knowledge and education in a person's past

internship n. a period of time when a student or recent graduate works for a job in order to get experience, usually without pay

résumé(s) – n. a short document describing your education and work history that you give an employer when you are applying for a job

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