Daetriana Burks-Reed: Fighting for minorities in computer science
For Black History Month, CSE is elevating the stories of black students in our programs. Daetriana is a passionate voice for the disadvantaged.
Daetriana Burks-Reed is a former LSA undergraduate who studied computer science at Michigan but who exited the program without completing. She now has a full-time job in the tech industry.
The story below is based on an interview with Daetriana that took place in March 2019, when she was a fourth-year student at Michigan.
Reflecting upon experiences and perspectives such as Daetriana’s allows CSE to progress toward a more equitable and inclusive culture.
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CS is Daetriana’s passion, and she hopes to graduate from Michigan with a degree in CS, to work in the tech industry, and to serve as an authentic role model for others.
She’s deep into the curriculum for the major and has taken almost all of the core courses. But despite the effort, she remains officially undeclared.
Daetriana’s barrier to the CS major is her failure to meet the GPA declaration requirement – and short of meeting the requirement, she’s had to bootstrap her studies and to seek out resources when needed. Determined to pursue her dream, Daetriana remains hopeful and resilient.
Daetriana did not grow up programming or even realize that it was for her. Her high school in her hometown of Chicago did not challenge or stimulate her. But something happened in her junior year that woke her up and changed her life. That’s when her fifth-hour AP Physics instructor brought a box of laptops and robotics kits to class and announced that they would learn to program. It was her introduction to an incredible new world.
“When I discovered coding, I felt like I had finally found something,” Daetriana says. “I had found it. It was so exciting! I had never felt so liberated and in control. I fell in love with typing on the computer and having it do what I wanted it to do.”
She began rising early to code and staying after class to work more. While other students spoke to counselors about college pathways, she’d use the time instead to code. She already knew what she was going to do.
Daetriana received a scholarship to attend Michigan and left for Ann Arbor as soon as she could. Her freshman year at Michigan was “a daze,” as she learned her way around campus and dived into her first classes. In her second year, she began taking EECS courses.
The first time Daetriana took ENGR 101, she failed – there was just so much that was new to her. “I was very discouraged, because this was my dream,” she says. But a friend, a black student who was a senior in CE, said, “So what? You get out your laptop, you register for it again, and you do it again. It won’t be easy, but you will do it.” And she did.
When she began EECS 280, her first large CS course, Daetriana was excited and felt ready, but on the first day before class in the packed hallway outside the classroom, she looked around and realized that she was the only black student. It was a strange feeling, and she photographed the scene “because no one would believe it otherwise.”
In EECS 280, she fell in love with her class project. But the class itself was a struggle in many ways. “When you’re the only black student in class, all the other students act like you’re invisible,” she says. “And when a student of color initially asks for help, there is always a reaction of ‘you don’t know this?’ You see everything on the instructor’s face, because you just asked the question: the irritation and the incredulity, even though they try to hide it, and it stops you from asking any questions at all.”
This was when Daetriana realized that all of the people around her who were succeeding had people who looked like them to help them. “I looked around and said, there’s no one here who looks like me!”
After EECS 280, Daetriana took EECS 203. And that was nearly the end for her, because that’s when she realized just how much she was really missing.
“EECS 203 was the hardest and most traumatizing class I ever took,” says Daetriana. “You go to class, do the homework, go to office hours, ask questions, things will click, and then the exam comes and it’s apples and oranges – nothing matches.”
“EECS 280 and 281 are hard,” she continues, “because that material is challenging and pretty much new to everybody. EECS 203 is the weeder class for minorities and people from underprivileged backgrounds, because we don’t have the same prior experience. There are way too many assumptions in that class that we are all coming in on the same educational level.”
While struggling through EECS 203, Daetriana realized that she needed to form her own support network.
“I basically started walking around looking for other black students,” she says. “If they looked like they were coding on their laptop, I would walk up and say ‘we should be friends.’”
Daetriana’s network grew rapidly, and before long other black students were approaching her instead of the other way around. She gave her group the name MEECS, for “Minority students in EECS.”
MEECS has since grown to about 70 members. They focus on studying together and scheduling classes together. “When you’re the only black student, the other students don’t acknowledge you. Even some teachers don’t treat you the same,” says Daetriana. “So we take care of ourselves. We check in on each other and keep morale up. It is literally someone’s job to send jokes to our group chat every day. We share other information, such as recruitment leads, so that we can all have more opportunities.”
Having the support of MEECS helped Daetriana, and she saw an improvement in her grades.
But, she asserts, there are now more barriers to studying CS for minority students than there were previously. In response to booming interest in CS, the administration has announced a new course prerequisite requirement for engineering students taking EECS 281, one that Daetriana feels will have a more negative impact on students from underprivileged backgrounds.
“The University of Michigan knows that, and they still put in rules that tend to target a certain community because they just want the number of students in CS to drop,” says Daetrina. “We need more tech people in the world, so for one of the top universities to say we want less people to declare in this growing and important major is ridiculous.”
Daetriana says that the University knew that the new requirement would impact minorities. “When the rule was announced, it was also announced that there would be more resources put into the ELC (the Engineering Learning Center). It would be better to hire more IAs, to have more office hours, and to give teachers more rein to help, instead of segregating the struggling minority students.”
The truth, says Daetriana, is that the ELC is the spot for minorities. It is staffed with three to four student tutors on any given day to help 40 or 50 students. “It is not sufficient.”
In light of these changes, Daetriana says minorities in CS feel attacked.
“We really want to learn this material, but we are put in an environment that is toxic and competition based. And as a result, it’s almost normal to have mental breakdowns as a minority student in CS at Michigan.”
Daetriana wants to see more people of color be able to take CS, to participate in the tech realm, and to help influence and drive the tech agenda. But in her view, the U-M program is a barrier rather than an aid to that end.
“With Michigan being the #1 public institution, I just don’t understand how they can’t see the importance of uplifting the minority community in tech.”
In addition to the GPA requirements, Daetriana feels that struggling students, especially minorities, are continually encouraged to curb their dreams in CS.
“Every time you go to an advisor, the suggestions are: change your major; this might not be for you; you can’t do this. It’s almost automatic.”
When Daetriana had trouble with EECS 203, her advisor suggested that she should consider moving to the School of Information.
“I didn’t ask for advice about another major,” she says. “I asked for advice and resources on how to do better in this major. He said that if I was struggling so much that CS might not be for me. My feeling is, who doesn’t struggle at some point?” After talking to a lot of other minority students who are struggling in CS, says Daetriana, “I realized we are all being told that.”
By the time she had finished EECS 203, Daetriana realized that she was going to have to take charge of her own education. That’s when she began tracking down programming resources and courses on the web to fill in the gaps in her education.
About this time, Daetriana got an internship at Microsoft, and that was one of her proudest moments. She feels like her passion for CS and her desire to succeed came through during the interview with the recruiters and made a difference for her. The validation of her internship experience has also convinced her not to give up. But she sees other minority students who don’t get internships or jobs after graduation.
After her internship, Daetriana tried to take the web building class at Michigan and could not register because of her undeclared status. So, she went to Code Academy on the web and learned web programming on her own. She is now building a website to help black students with recruitment, because so many have low GPAs or other academic red flags and are passed over by employers.
“I’m not going to give up,” says Daetriana. “I also want to do so much for minority students coming in. You see them come in wanting to do CS and a year or two later they have changed their major to English or Sociology because that is what they are told to do. There is nothing wrong with those majors, but when I look these particular students in the eye I can see how miserable they are having to do this because they couldn’t get through EECS 203 or 280. I was fortunate enough to get through those classes, but the fact that I have to say that reflects the climate that we have to face every day. And if I speak up about it, I’m angry or I’m a bitter black woman.”
Daetriana is more focused than ever on positive change. She is working with Prof. Chad Jenkins to envision and develop a bridge program for CS that will get new students better prepared for the program at Michigan. “It’s really needed,” she says, “because if you are a minority student, there’s a good chance you are coming from a school that wasn’t cutting it or didn’t know what engineering is. And for those students, it’s going to be a rough ride.”
Despite her hard-won successes, it is still a challenge for Daetriana at Michigan. “Every time I pass a class, I tell myself that I live to fight for another semester. It’s tiring. It’s like burning out before you even start your life. I’m beyond tired.”
Her four-year scholarship will run out soon, and this is very much on her mind.
“For a lot of us, if we don’t make it here we go back to nothing. That adds so much stress on top of everything else.”