On Being Latino in Computer Science and Systemic Barriers

Alex Zúñiga is a Project Manager for Azure Integration Services at Microsoft, graduating from the University of Washington (UW) Paul G Allen School of Computer Science with a bachelor’s in computer science in the summer of 2022.

However, the experience of getting to this position was a long, tedious road.

“When nobody looks like you, often you question if you belong there,” they said.

Experiences like these are familiar to Latino wanting to pursue a Computer Science degree.

In an interview with Cision, Carlos Ignacio Zavala, senior director at Whiteboard Advisors said “Hispanic youth face systemic and structural barriers to full participation in Computer Science learning opportunities. Without early participation in CS, they lose out on starting a pathway to CS in college and careers.”

In 2021 Latinos made up 6.9% of US Computer Science graduates, although Latino make up 19% of the overall population. Alex’s alma mater, the University of Washington, is ranked 6th in the nation for their CS department. However, only 10% of incoming freshmen pressuring the degree are under-represented minorities and the number of incoming Latino students is unknown.

“Within my time at college, I met two other Latinos within the [CS] department, and one had dropped out of the program by the end of the first year, ” Alex said. “I actually did not interact with a single Hispanic woman or nonbinary person, like my entire four years at UW.”

While diversity with their classes was far and few between, Alex recalled fondly the time when they were able to experience diversity in university; “I ended up actually in a team with everyone who was queer. Only two people were white and [there were] five of us. It was really nice.”

Alex’s positive experience with diversity in university echoes the sentiment that Zavala expressed about the untapped potential of Hispanic students.

“Hispanic students of all ages are filled with vast potential and unlimited aspirations. They represent a pool of talent that our nation’s employers–and society – so desperately needs,” he said.

However, the lack of diversity is not just at UW, but at all top ranked CS departments across the country. This in turn reflects the position filled within the industry; Latino makeup 7% of computing jobs and 8% of all STEM jobs. The technology industry is seen as a front for innovation, breaking barriers and constantly challenging the norm. But, there are so many existing barriers they don’t want to address or highlight. They may be good at pushing the boundaries, but they are still stuck in the past when it comes to diversity.

“The fact that this is like the first [Latino], that’s probably going to be the 1,000th person for any other white person… it’s dis-hearting,” Alex commented in frustration.

To interest a population to pursue a career, often individuals have to be exposed to the field. But that is easier said than done.

“I grew up in poverty,” Maribel Campos, a video partner at Apple Tv+, told NBC in an interview about Latina in tech. “I had zero connections.”

At the age of 11, Maribel Campos resided with her parents in a trailer home located in Sonoma, California. All she desired for Christmas that year was an iPod, however even with her parents working multiple jobs, they were barely able to make ends meet, let alone by an iPod. Her story of poverty is a common thread. While Latino make up 18% of the US population, they make up 27% of those living below the poverty line. Low income communities are less likely to have access to computer science curriculum. This matters because studies have shown that of those students who do have access to computer science curriculum, 68% later are interested in continuing their computer science education. On the other hand, only 49% of students with no access to this curriculum are interested in pursuing computer science.

The experience of the immigrant family rang close to Alex when, during their time in university, they had an internship at CDK. Their cohort mentor was a Latina immigrant from Mexico.

“The reality that someone of my background holding the position I wanted made me feel like it wasn’t a dream I was telling myself,” they said.

As a result of the experience, Alex was inspired to do more community service. With this in mind, they decided to help with Microsoft outreach service and program, aimed at serving underrepresented minorities and low-income areas by promoting computer science resources.

“You shouldn’t have to feel like who you are [affects] what it is that you want to do,” Alex said.

Isabel is a high school student at Inglemoor High School. They were a fellow in the 2023 pilot Story Gathering Workshop, a program that gave twelve students the opportunity to write and publish an article for our news outlet, Voices.

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