She's Headed to the White House: Meet Jinisha Patel

Jinisha Patel, a sophomore, will attend a Tech Summit at the White House.

Jinisha Patel, a sophomore at NJIT, will attend a Tech Inclusion Summit at the White House.

Patel, a computer science major, was one of 12 college students from across the country chosen to attend the summit by the White House. She was nominated by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), a group she has belonged to since high school.  

During the summit, speakers will discuss how to ensure that young people, especially minorities, women and girls, have the chance to study technology and work in the technology sector. 

The White House says the purpose of the summit is to “broaden the talent base in the technology fields that will fuel American innovation and drive creative new applications of technology.”

Patel will speak at the summit about why it’s important for young women to study technology and how she developed her passion for computer science.

She’ll be in elite company. The special guests at the summit are Todd Park, Assistant to the President, U.S. Chief Technology Officer; Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President, Senior Advisor for Strategic Engagement; and Mitchell Kapor, Board Member, the Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit that works to eliminate the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Also during the summit five newly formed private-sector initiatives will announce their efforts to engage more youth in developing technology. After the event, Patel will meet the representatives from each of the initiatives, who will offer her feedback and support on her studies and her career.

Asked if she was nervous about the summit, Patel smiles unperturbedly.

“I’m excited, not nervous,” she says, “When you have a passion for a subject, you have the confidence to talk about it in public.And I love computer science and programming.  It’s a great honor to be going to the White House and I hope girls and young women who want to study computing and technology will be inspired by my story.”

Patel’s story is one about overcoming a gender stereotype to pursue her passion.  By her own admission, in early high school she was a “slacker.”  But in her junior year she elected to take a programming class: an introduction to JAVA. Her love for programming helped her ace that class and inspired her, in general, to excel in school. In her senior year, she took an AP computer science class and graduated with a high GPA.

She attended a community college for a year and last year transferred to NJIT.  At her community college, she recalls, she once asked her computer science professor for extra work. She was doing well in class and wanted to stay challenged. He refused to give it to her, she says.

“I could see that he didn’t think I was smart enough to handle the extra work,” Patel says. “But I ended up tutoring the boys in the class. Because I was a woman the professor didn’t see how intense I was about programming.”

Patel grew up in India, where in her town, she says, computer science is still a “male-oriented career.” But while back in India, when she was a little girl, she got lucky. Her mother rented a small house to a family who had a computer. She was 7-years old then, and it was the first computer she ever saw. She loved the computer so much that she became a frequent visitor to the tenant’s house.  Her mother saw how much she loved that computer and bought her one of her own. She spent endless hours on that computer, teaching herself what would later become her academic major and path in life.

Her first semester at NJIT had an inauspicious start.  Her mother died in August, right before the semester began (her father died when she was 4-years old). She had to return to India for the funeral and returned to NJIT behind in her studies. She survived, though, and this semester she’s found her groove, academically and socially. 

"Jinisha has already made a mark through her strong passion for computing, with a particular emphasis on helping and encouraging women students to learn from each other,” says James Geller, Chairman of the Department of Computer Science. “She represents some of the best in our new generation of computing mavens.”

She’s doing well in her classes and getting involved in events related to her major. For instance, she’s part of a team participating in a programming Hackathon hosted by NJIT and sponsored by AT&T and Juniper. She’s also trying to organize a Microsoft International Women’s Hackathon at NJIT. She’s already been featured on Micrsoft's Research Website.

In additions, she's developing a mobile app called TechChicks for the National Center for Women & Information Technology. She is working with 30 girls nationwide, all winners of NCWIT awards, to build a social App Engine that will build a community of women in the field of technology.  The app project, for which Patel is the project lead, is sponsored by a $10,000 Motorola Mobility Empowerment Grant. The center even featured her in a Flashtalk video:

And she already has an internship lined up for this summer. She'll work as a software development intern for Cisco Cystems, in San Jose, Calif.

So whereas last semester began for her with a blow -- her mother’s death -- this semester began with a blessing: an invitation to the White House. It’s all coming together for her – she loves her computing science professors and her current classes, and later today she’ll take a train to Washington, D.C. -- to visit the White House.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to be invited to the White House,” she says, blushing at the thought of it. “Again, I just hope my story inspires other tech-minded girls and women to study technology.”

By Robert Florida