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Student Wins Microsoft Scholarship
September 13, 2006

A Calvin sophomore, majoring in computer science and art, has won a Microsoft Scholarship from the Society of Women Engineers.

“It specifically goes to women interested in computer science,” says Allison Thompson, 19, one of two winners out of 700 applicants for the $2,500 prize. “When I heard, I was in shock for most of the day because I thought I would never win.”

Thompson, who hails from La Canada, Calif., won the scholarship via an essay that explained how she got interested in computer science, an essay that traced her evolution into the “ultimate geek chick,” an avid computer gamer and programmer.

“Lots of essay topics feel clichéd to me,” Thompson says. “This essay gave me a chance to write about what it’s like to be a female computer science student. There aren’t a lot of us. It is intimidating to walk into a computer lab and find out you’re the only girl, and there are a lot of guys sitting there.”

Thompson’s journey started in middle school when she and her friends designed their first Web site, a product so embarrassing to her in retrospect that she won’t disclose its address.

“It had blinking text and animated GIFs everywhere. It was the most obnoxious thing I think I’ve ever created,” she says.

Soon, Thompson moved on to writing code for her own computer programs.

“I went from ‘Click this button to put this picture into your Web site’ to typing the actual code that would put the picture there,” she explains

Even as her skills grew, she became aware of a gender bias in the computer field.

“I think there’s a stigma out there that women can’t use computers or that women are bad at using computers—women crash computers—and I really think nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “Women helped build the first computers.”

Calvin professor of computer science Joel Adams agrees.

“When it comes to problem-solving and thinking outside of the box, women are as good as men, and the creativity, flexible hours and high pay all combine to make computing a superb career path for women,” he says. “Unfortunately, fewer than 20 percent of computer science students in the U.S. are women, compared to more than 50 percent in some other countries. We are squandering half of our country’s brain trust, even as globalization brings increased competition from abroad.”

Thompson, who loves both drawing and coding, hopes to raise the percentage of women employed in the computer field, and her dream job is to work at a company like Pixar.

“I want to work for a company that has a sense of fun. I’d like to do concept art for movies,” she says.

“It's great to have Allison in our department,” Adams adds. “Our country needs more women to study computer science to meet the technological challenges we face.”

~written by communications and marketing staff writer Myrna Anderson