Driven to Make an Impact
Throughout her career, Kate Atchison has made a commitment to making a difference. The thread of community service is woven throughout her life—and her work.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is serve my community and give back. When I was growing up, I was always the one taking on leadership roles at church and finding ways to volunteer in my community,” Atchison said. “That mentality has really guided my career decisions, and that’s why I’m here in this role at the University of Maryland.”
As associate director of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing (I4C) and the Maryland Center for Women in Computing (MCWIC), Atchison has impacted the lives of thousands of University of Maryland undergraduate students and thousands more K-12 students. Her undeniable impact inspired her team to nominate her for the University System of Maryland Board of Regents Staff Award for inclusion, multiculturalism and social justice—which she won this summer.
“Kate has continuously pushed for all forms of equity at the institution, community and national levels over the past six years,” said Jan Plane, who nominated Atchison for the award and recently retired from her role as director of I4C and MCWIC. “Once Kate joined MCWIC, her enthusiasm and organizational skills allowed the center to grow exponentially.”
When Atchison started working for MCWIC in 2016, she found herself in the middle of summer camp preparation. Plane had started CompSciConnect, a three-year computing summer academy for middle schoolers, and Atchison quickly took on a critical role running all of MCWIC’s K-12 summer camps.
“In that first year, I found that this job is really the culmination of all my experience and passions, after all of my previous experiences in event planning and program management,” Atchison said. “I was doing a little bit of everything, working with Jan to establish processes and procedures and get us organized.”
Though she hadn’t worked in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space before, Atchison committed herself to learning everything she could about DEI in computing. One of her first big projects was building a tutoring program to help students succeed in computer science regardless of their background. The program began with about 40 students in fall 2016 and quickly grew in popularity—with more than 1,000 students participating in tutoring today.
Now, six years later, Atchison is leading conversations on campus as a member of the Department of Computer Science’s Diversity Committee, the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences’ (CMNS) Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council and the CMNS TerrapinSTRONG onboarding program.
“Kate is a font of boundless energy, commitment and hard work in this field. She draws
people into this world by example,” said Bob Infantino, CMNS associate dean for undergraduate education. “When we try to explain how we boosted diversity and inclusion in computing at UMD and throughout the state, there is no doubt that Kate is the secret ingredient that led to that success.”
Atchison’s work supporting national DEI efforts in computing has led to several large grants for UMD, recruitment and retention of computing students from underrepresented populations, and several research publications and presentations. Since MCWIC’s launch in 2014, the percentage of women majoring in computer science at UMD has jumped from 15% to 21%. The department now has almost 800 women pursuing computer science degrees. In March 2021, UMD was announced a site for Break Through Tech, a national initiative that aims to propel more women and nonbinary students into tech education—and ultimately tech careers. Atchison led the grant proposal in 2020 and is currently the site lead for the Break Through Tech programs and initiatives at UMD.
“We are so proud to have Kate with us in the Department of Computer Science,” said Matthias Zwicker, computer science department chair who also holds the Elizabeth Iribe Chair for Innovation in the Department of Computer Science and the Phillip H. and Catherine C. Horvitz Professorship in Computer Science. “It’s been amazing to see Kate lead across our department, college and university in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, and I am thrilled that all of her efforts have been rewarded by the Board of Regents.”
Beyond addressing diversity in numbers, Atchison wants to ensure that the department and the university offer computing students an inclusive environment where their input is welcome and encouraged.
“I feel like students, especially when we came back in person after COVID, they know that I4C is a home and a safe space. They can come ask questions. We created that climate and that community here,” Atchison said. “It’s not really something you can measure quantitatively, but we’ve learned how to track the success of our programming through anecdotes that students share, always noting their feedback and adapting as needed.”
In the future, Atchison hopes to play a more active role in building systems and structures that serve as long-term solutions for making UMD’s computing programs more inclusive and welcoming to all students.
“My dream is for DEI to be embedded and ingrained in every single person, and it’s not this like, ‘We checked this box.' It’s an action. It’s a mentality. It’s a climate that everyone agrees to,” Atchison said. “At the end of the day, I wouldn’t put this much energy, effort and work into my job if it wasn’t fun and I didn’t feel like I was making an impact.”
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