Dr. Nicki Washington doesn’t want to be known as a “unicorn” – someone who’s a rarity in his or her field.
As the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina State University, Washington feels a responsibility to be a wonderful example for those who will ideally come after her.
“Not just because I’m the first, but because I’m one of the few,” said Washington, a Winthrop University associate professor of computer science. “I was blessed with certain things, so I do feel a lot of onus to make sure I don’t remain one of the few or only. If you’re one of the only, then there’s still a problem.”
Following the mantra of “lift while climbing,” Washington recently published her book “Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving in the Tech Field,” which she calls a “love letter to Black women and girls.”
The book touches on Washington’s experiences from a young age all the way to her distinguished career, which includes tenures at IBM, the Aerospace Corporation in Chantilly, Virginia, and Howard University. She highlights the important lessons that aren’t taught in class – holding people accountable, facing the imposter syndrome, owning and trusting your “dopeness” and more.
One section, “Keep Receipts,” emphasizes the importance of documenting everything, determining if a situation needs to be escalated and if so, finding the right person to address while remaining professional because “No one will fight for you like you will.” Another section, “Closed Mouths Don’t Get Fed,” encourages women to speak up for themselves and others, and for students, to participate in class and make sure professors know their names.
The idea came when Washington moderated a panel at the inaugural meeting of www.blackComputeHER.com. Hearing other women tell their stories reminded her of similar personal situations.
“I thought, ‘If I was 19-22 again, what would I want someone to tell me to prepare me for what’s coming?’” she explained.
Take her lessons on code-switching, in which Black women and men feel more comfortable being relaxed and their authentic selves when speaking amongst themselves, but differently in front of non-minorities, and facing failure when it seems unacceptable.
“We live by this idea that we have to be ‘twice as good,’” Washington said. “But how can I be OK with failure if I’m always taught to be twice as good as everyone else?”
But the book doesn’t just speak to black women and girls: she’s received positive reviews from people of all demographics who found it insightful and helpful. She’s also participated in numerous national efforts to increase diversity in her field with Google, the S.C. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security and more.
‘Chosen to be myself’
Washington grew up in Durham, N.C., with a mother who worked at IBM and a K-12 administrator father.
“I’ve always tinkered with computers,” she said. “I started programming in the eighth grade.”
What’s the first thing she remembers programming? A tic-tac-toe/Hangman game.
Her mother was one of about five Black employees who started at IBM on the same day, so Washington and her parents frequently hung out with those other engineering families and their children.
“It was a representation that we didn’t realize at the time was so important,” she said. “We saw it in the people who raised us. We didn’t realize how deep that was until we got to college and entered the work force.”
After earning a degree from Johnson C. Smith University (North Carolina), Washington, at the insistence of former JCSU President Dorothy Yancy, went on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. at North Carolina State.
She joined the Winthrop faculty in 2015 and is known in class for the easy way she interacts with students.
“I’ve always chosen to be myself,” Washington said. “That’s what makes people relate. If you can’t be yourself, then you don’t need to be there.”