By Chris Kocher
January 26, 2021
When trying to solve engineering’s trickiest problems, it helps to have as many different perspectives as possible, because someone could view a solution through the lens of their own experiences.
To add these voices into the mix, Watson College offers a variety of programs and scholarships that encourage women, underrepresented minorities and students from low-income backgrounds to pursue a STEM education — many of them supported by generous donors or sponsors.
Overseeing those efforts is Monica Guient, Watson’s assistant dean for academic diversity and inclusive excellence. When she joined the college in 2018 as director of diversity programs and initiatives, her mandate was solely student-focused, but “our education is an ecosystem. We push and pull on so many different areas,” she says.
“My role has changed organically and purposefully. Diversity is supposed to be interwoven throughout an organization. It shouldn’t be something like an appendage to Watson College or Binghamton University.”
With her expanded mandate, Guient has taken more of a role in Watson’s curricula and graduate student recruiting, as well as working with industrial partners to improve student support, internships and the diversity labor-force pipeline.
Guient continues to manage or guide programs such as the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Upward Bound Math and Science (UBMS), and the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), but she also is developing new ones. The latest to come to fruition is Diversifying Coding (cleverly abbreviated to D-Coding), which started in fall 2020 thanks to a donation from Google executive Jim Bankoski ’91.
Among the benefits of D-Coding for the undergraduates in the program are digital badges in technical courses, a stipend of $1,000 per semester for two semesters, an internship, near-peer mentoring and paid travel to a professional conference.
“We developed a program that integrates social skills, professional development and technical skills, which are three key pieces to an experience that will lead to a strong person in the workforce,” Guient says.
Bankoski works as a distinguished engineer at Google and oversees a team of 242 employees on projects that include the Chrome web browser, internet video conferencing and new application programming interfaces (APIs) “to make the web a better place.” (He’s been working on video conferencing since 2003, so he’s one of the folks to thank for helping us get through 2020.)
Encouraging and cultivating the next generation of programmers is not just the right thing to do, but it also serves a more practical purpose.
“We have trouble getting enough high-tech software engineers in our industry,” Bankoski says. “There’s also a whole segment of people who get turned off by computer science long before they get to this level. Just pragmatically speaking, we should solve that. They’re great jobs, and too many people are getting selected out of the system early — in high school or grade school, they’re saying, ‘This isn’t the career for me.’ I want to help resolve that issue.”
As a Binghamton University graduate, Bankoski made few small donations over the years, but an alumni luncheon at Google five years ago — also attended by Watson College Dean Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari — brought him closer to his alma mater.
“People were listening to what I said and what I cared about, and they were taking action,” he says. “I realized I could actually make a difference at Binghamton.”
Bankoski and his wife, Heather, decided to fund the Binghamton Codes! program, which gives all Binghamton undergraduate students the opportunity to learn coding skills and earn digital badges. When Guient approached him about the similar D-Coding project, this time aimed at increasing diversity in the ranks of programmers, he was eager to help.
The efforts by Watson College and the University to foster a more welcoming learning environment have not gone unnoticed: Both Woman Engineer and Minority Engineer magazines have named Binghamton among the Top 20 universities fostering diversity and inclusion. Guient says that Diversifying Coding is just the start of her work as assistant dean. She is already at work on the Watson College Scholars Program that will support more students from underrepresented populations.
“We need to give future innovators and tech leaders the financial, academic and community support to reach the highest levels of their professions,” she says. “We owe them every chance to succeed and thrive.”