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First African-American computer science Ph.D. from Purdue funded with a VACCINE HS-STEM Career Devel

August 12, 2010

On his way to making academic history at Purdue University, the usually confident Nwokedi Idika could not avoid the tiny voice of doubt.

It constantly reminded him that he was a young black man, and as such did not fit the image of an expert in computer sciences -- a field dominated by foreign exchange students from India, Asians or white males, statistics show.

"I'm glad I've been able to eliminate any doubt around a black person's ability to obtain a Ph.D. in computer science," the 26-year-old said.

On Aug. 7, Idika will become the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from Purdue, home of the oldest and one of the most respected computer science programs in the nation.

The fact that it took Purdue 48 years to achieve this milestone doesn't seem to shock those who have long tried but failed to boost the number of young blacks -- not to mention women, American Indians and Hispanics -- who study or work in the field.

Last year, there were 1,345 computer science Ph.D.s awarded on college campuses across the nation. Only 17 went to African-Americans. Typically, blacks constitute less than 2 percent of graduates in the field.

And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 7 percent of all computer scientists, programmers and software engineers are black.

At Indiana University, there have been only three computer science Ph.D.s for African-Americans, the first in 1993, and the University of Notre Dame, the only other school offering a Ph.D. in the field, has had just one, awarded in 2005.

There is much debate over the reason.

"It is not our performance, and it is not an issue that African-Americans can't make it," said Manuel Perez-Quinones, a Virginia Tech professor who chairs the Coalition to Diversify Computing. "They are just not enrolling in graduate programs, period. They are trying anything possible to recruit, but the numbers just are not there."

But there are plenty of incentives out there, both in the number of jobs and the salaries.

Federal labor officials predict that careers in computer networks, systems and database administrators will grow by 30 percent and that 286,600 new jobs will be created before 2018. And recent salary surveys show those entering the field with a bachelor's degree can earn starting salaries of about $50,000. With a Ph.D., that nearly doubles to $93,000.

Idika has seen firsthand the enrollment disparity in the classroom.

"The majority of computer science Ph.D. students in the U.S. are not American," he said. "Many Americans don't even know you can get a Ph.D. in computer science -- and a good portion of those think all you can do with (that) is be a professor.

"And most young people don't find a professor's lifestyle sexy."

Purdue's efforts to attract more diversity have gone beyond campuswide enticements for undergrads.

Nearly a decade ago, the university established the Science Bound partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools, in which inner-city middle and high school students can earn eight semesters of free tuition by completing the five-year program. It begins in the eighth grade and includes a science-intensive curriculum and summer workshops held in West Lafayette.

There are more than 200 students in the program -- 150 still in IPS and the rest working their way to a degree at Purdue. But the disparity in the computer science department still is evident. Purdue reports that last fall's class of 406 undergraduates in the field included only seven African-Americans.

Wesley Campbell, director of Science Bound, suspects the numbers are so low because so many IPS students are low-income and come from single-parent homes where no one has ever been to college.

"Those students don't have a lot of role models at home. It's a huge hurdle we have to overcome," Campbell said.

Idika's parents provided the framework for ambition when they left Nigeria to come to America and raise a family -- three boys and a girl. His father, Geoffrey, was an accountant, and his mother is a nurse.

"America is the land of opportunity. Nigeria isn't," Idika said about the move, which occurred before he was born.

Raised in suburban Prince George's County, Md., Idika was instilled with strong work and study habits that helped him succeed academically.

His interest in computer science grew with positive feedback from teachers in high school. And in college, he took advantage of mentoring programs and a support group that helped him stay focused.

"One of the last things my father (who died while Idika was in college at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County) told me was that no matter how hard you're working, always work harder," Idika said. "You can never become complacent. Your brain has to constantly be looking for ways to find new and better ways."

He was "extremely driven," said Stacey Cameron, a computer security consultant in Maryland, who served as a mentor to Idika at UMBC. Both were in the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, which encourages computer science careers, and she met with him frequently to offer advice and help him through issues.

"He never became overwhelmed with the pressures I saw some freshmen succumb to. He remained focused the entire time."

After Idika graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average, he expressed interest in graduate studies at Purdue, and Purdue returned that interest. During a campus visit, Idika said, he was "made to feel as if I was a world-class free agent all-star looking for a new team."

Idika's accomplishment will give Purdue its own role model to inspire a new generation of black students.

"The computer science department celebrates a milestone ... but (we) realize that our work has only just begun," said Zenephia Evans, Purdue's director of multicultural science programs and associate director of the science diversity office.

Idika has already been asked to mentor and give similar support to younger Purdue students, and that is a role he hopes to continue even after he is gone.

"We can always imagine what is possible, but until it happens, there is always at least a hint of doubt," said Idika. "I think I represent possibility. I wouldn't call myself a role model. That's for others to decide."

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