Park Scholar Anna Owens ‘21 discovered her passion for cybersecurity while studying at NC State. Now, this atypical computer programmer is preparing to apply her skills at one of the world’s biggest tech companies.
Mention the word “coder” to many people and they’ll picture a man, young and slovenly dressed, sitting in a dimly lit basement. Coding stretches across his computer monitor like a scene from The Matrix. A pizza box sits nearby, a piece or two left from hours (days?) before. A video game is paused on a widescreen TV. The number of empty soft drink bottles scattered about is almost incalculable.
NC State student Anna Owens laughs as she recounts this stereotype. For years, it might have been a fairly accurate description of the computer science industry — male-dominated and asocial. It wasn’t a field one would expect an outgoing female to choose for herself, but choose to major in computer science Owens did, as are more and more young women.
The university and its industry partners on Centennial Campus are glad to have them.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Owens didn’t come from a strong computer science background. Her all-girls high school was geared toward the liberal arts rather than STEM courses, so it wasn’t until a friend suggested an online computer class from another institution that Owens, then in her junior year, tried her hand at programming.
Owens’ interest in computer science grew to the point that she decided to major in the subject when she went to college. NC State’s program was tempting, but as an out-of-state student, Owens couldn’t afford the tuition.
Thankfully, Owens’ high school advisor knew of and suggested she apply to NC State’s Park Scholarships program, which selected Owens as part of its Class of 2021. Owens was able to join the Pack after all, becoming one of a growing number of women in the university’s computer science program in 2017. Owens has seen many more tech-savvy females join its ranks since then.
“I think the computer science program at NC State is fantastic,” Owens said. “I think it’s a very practical program, in that they teach you things that they know you’re going to want to use and learn and it’ll be good for not only interviews but jobs, too.”
The College of Engineering has made a concerted effort over the years to diversify its student body — gender-wise and otherwise. This broadening collection of backgrounds is already proving its value in the College as well as the university at large.
“NC State College of Engineering places great emphasis on ensuring that our student body reflects the diversity of the world around us,” Laura Bottomley, director of The Engineering Place and Women in Engineering, said. “Without women and students from minoritized ethnicities and backgrounds, the best solutions to the difficult problems that face us in the world are just not possible. Over the course of the last 15 years, we have grown our representation of women from 14 percent of the student population to nearly 30 percent. That number puts us far above the national average of 18-20 percent.
“In addition, NC State has been in the top three non-HBCU [historically Black colleges and universities] graduators of African American engineers for many years. We want all students, regardless of sex or ethnicity, background or wealth, to feel at home in the College of Engineering at NC State, and we work to till the garden for them to grow into world-class engineers.”
The Park Scholarships program did more than just enable Owens to attend NC State for her undergraduate degree, though.
Owens worked hard to graduate this month with her bachelor’s and a Spanish minor, but her Park funding covered four full years. Rather than leave financial support unused, Owens took part in the accelerated bachelor’s/master’s program. She is now set to graduate with a master of computer science degree in May 2021, earning everything in just four years at NC State.
“I’m going to get my bachelor’s and my master’s for free — how many people can say that?” Owens said.
Owens is focusing her studies on cybersecurity, with her favorite course so far being one on digital privacy. The class taught her about the various ways scammers can take advantage of Internet users and, ultimately, solidified her career goal: defending others from the dangers of our increasingly technological world.
“It was a class that I wouldn’t have gotten to take if it hadn’t been for the master’s degree,” Owens said.
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Owens didn’t just come to NC State to code, though. This well-rounded student has been involved with university activities ranging from playing club basketball to serving as president of the Women in Computer Science (WICS) program for the last two years. With every extracurricular she participates in, Owens chips away at the misconceptions people have of how a programmer should look and act.
The computer industry is working to combat those misconceptions as well. Many of the tech companies on Centennial Campus have partnered with WICS to conduct TED Talks, panels, coding workshops and other outreach programs. A more diverse industry is a more innovative industry, with everyone benefiting as a result.
Owens has certainly benefited. Her time in NC State’s computer science program led to a job with Microsoft over the past two summers. Next fall, she’ll be moving to Seattle, Washington, to help the tech powerhouse continue making the Web safer.
“It’s something that I care about so much,” Owens said. “I would love one day to be able to not just be coding but working more as an advocate for people.”