What is your name, year in school, and area of study? What are your preferred gender pronouns?
My name is Uloma Okoro, I’m a senior here at the University of Washington, and I’m majoring in Electrical Engineering with a focus in digital signal processing. I use she/her pronouns.
Why did you decide to pursue your major?
Well, I came in knowing I wanted to do something STEM related, but I didn’t know which way to go. With my mom’s help, I was pretty much stuck between computer science and mechanical engineering, but for me, I didn’t want to do mechanical engineering because it made me think of cars; like you’re doing mechanics or something, so I tried to pursue computer science, but I realized through my language classes that I didn’t want to sit at a desk all day coding for ever and ever. I could do some coding, but it was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I kind of explored and I fell upon electrical engineering, which we call “everything engineering” because you can really do a lot with that concentration, whether you want to go into something hard, or soft, or bio related.
Do you experience microaggressions from professors or students because of your identity? If so, can you describe an instance? What would you like others to learn from it?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced microaggressions, probably if I have I’ve never noticed. It’s just the little things that you do that people notice like sitting in the front of the class, going to office hours, saying hi in the hallway, because you are the only Black person in the class, that sticks to them, so that’s kinda on the positive side. In terms of microaggressions, the only thing I can think of is if I’m working in a group project with other members in the class who kind of try and devalue what I think of as an idea, even though the idea I’ve given was pretty much what they had said. That’s pretty much all I’ve had, but professors, not so much.
Do you think your gender plays a role in how you are treated on campus or in the classroom—positively or negatively?
I would say definitely in the engineering environment there is still that split between being female and being a male, because we are still in the world where we see that it’s all males who do everything. Like, if you Google “engineer” you see males, not even males but white males in hard hats and I’m like, “OK, it's 2016, it’s not all an engineer looks like.” We are a lot more diverse. Or at least we’re trying to be more diverse. So in the classes it’s very evident, especially if you know all the girls in your class; that’s not rare, because it’s so hard to get that many women in engineering that when you do have the same classes with them, you tend to stick with them throughout the end, and that kind of puts a damper on you from the rest of the class. For example, in one of my EE classes, pretty much there were six or seven of us girls in the class, and we always sat in the same place every day in the front; we always ask questions. The professor was female, so she really was just happy to know that we’re answering questions, and you can kind of hear guys grunting and being like, “Oh, they’re not right, you always listen to them,” or something like that, so they always feel like we’re being so cliquey but realistically, we’re all we have in the Engineering Department.
Do you receive support in those situations? If not, what kind of support do you wish were offered?
My professors are actually really cool, and approachable. I can always go to them for questions. Other than that, I make a lot of study groups so, like I said with all the girls in the classes, we always tend to be in the same study place, just hanging out and trying to help each other out. Even besides being a female, being a Black female is pretty hard to be, to an extent. Even though you have all these women here to support you, they really don’t understand what you’re going through. So I’m glad to be a part of organizations like NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) where, ever since freshman to senior year, I’ve seen such a dramatic growth in the amount of girls in the club. Even though I’m at an older place where I can give advice to people, I’m still learning from everyone else, so it’s always a good place to be with those kinds of people and get support through my peers who look like me.
In what ways does the UW lack diversity or community for Black students? What changes would you like to see?
We have no Black professors, at all. The Black professors we have now aren’t even in STEM related stuff, it’s all psychology, anthropology, which is not bad, it’s just that, that’s a start, but you need to find those who can really relate to you in the field that you want to pursue. It’s nice to go to them for advice, but it would be really nice to establish some sort of mentor/mentee with a professor who is relatable to you in your field.
What are your thoughts on this year’s presidential election?
I was kind of lost. I didn’t really know what to think, what to say, or who to go to. For me, it was a lot of figuring out who to trust and how to go on with my life. When I first heard about the results, the first person I thought about was my mom, because my mom was always about the politics. I really thought it was gonna be a landslide, but seeing that the outcome was like this makes me so confused of what I hope to see myself in this world that is growing, and we still have mixed thoughts, mixed signals about [how] we want to “make America great again” which, I don’t even know what that means. I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel wanted, I felt like everyone was staring, it was just very awkward to be in that place. It just felt so off, and my mind was just blocked. You have to figure out how to wake up the next morning to do what you were set to do, and not have that many distractions take such a toll on you.
How do you stay true to yourself when faced with adversities related to your gender or race?
I look to those who can give me advice when I’m stuck. I always talk to my mom, on the daily. She graduated here, both her Bachelor’s and Master's in Computer Science, and even though that was way back when, that doesn’t mean the things that happen now doesn’t still apply to her; so it’s really good to know that she’s proud of me, coming this far. Just knowing that, what I’ve been going through, I know that people that knock me down push me to go even further in life. Whoever tries to challenge my purpose is the reason why I keep going.
If you had the chance to tell all white people something, what would you say?
Learn from other people. Figure out what may be going on, don’t go in so hardheaded. Be more open-minded and try to invest and understand what we’re going through. We are here. We’re not trying to take your job. We’re just trying to be as intellectual as everybody else and we should not be penalized like that.
If you had the chance to give advice to a young Black child, what would you tell them?
Stay strong. Be confident. Have a good friend group. Have a good support system. Always listen to your parents; I’m very big on family values. Always listen to your parents over friends. Always stay with your books, always read. Ask for more questions. Anything that will get your mind stimulated at a young age will keep you interested in knowing what you want to do at a further age.