Internet2 Inclusivity Scholarship Recipients Reflect on Their 2024 Community Exchange Experience

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By Taleitha McGuinnis - Program Manager, Affiliates & Federal Affiliates

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Internet2 and the community welcomed five incredible IT professionals to the annual Community Exchange conference in Chicago earlier this month as recipients of the Internet2 Inclusivity (I2I) Scholarship.

The I2I Scholarship seeks to provide financial assistance and career development opportunities for early- to mid-career-level women in IT. Through sponsorship funds, the scholarship removes financial barriers by covering the cost of conference registration, airfare, and lodging.

As I2I scholarship recipient Kristen Weimar, administrative manager at OARnet, expressed, “The I2I scholarship awarded me access to a conference that I would not have otherwise been able to attend due to financial constraints.”

Internet2 inclusivity recipients

Additionally, the program helps connect scholarship recipients with colleagues within the Internet2  community, including past I2I Scholarship recipients. This coordinated effort eases the anxiety that can be felt by attending a large conference for the first time and creates a sense of belonging from the onset.

“The most memorable part of the conference for me was the opportunity to engage with community colleagues during networking breakfasts, lunches, and the dinner social,” said I2I scholarship recipient Sonal Jha, graduate researcher and HPC consultant at Virginia Tech. “As someone who leans towards introversion, these gatherings provided a comfortable environment to connect with professionals from diverse backgrounds and gain insights into their roles and contributions within the research and higher education community. Hearing about the career journeys of previous scholarship recipients was incredibly inspiring.” 

Being part of a cohort of scholarship recipients also allows the individual scholarship recipients to team up and attend sessions together. 

“Our group of recipients was amazing. I enjoyed my time with each of them, sharing our experiences and getting to know each other beyond work,” said Tina Oware, information security and risk compliance analyst at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Adding to Oware’s sentiment, Weimar reflected, “[The scholarship program] provided me with resources and an inclusive culture with my fellow scholarship recipients and the Internet2 community, who welcomed us with open arms. Oftentimes, the greatest barrier for minority groups when attending large events is that sense of belonging—not necessarily from exclusion by the community, but for feelings of isolation put on oneself.”

Fostering Connections to Enhance Professional Development

One of the hopes and goals of the I2I Scholarship program is that it will serve as a catalyst for recipients to attend future Internet2 and community events. 

At the 2024 Community Exchange, the program welcomed back five former I2I Scholarship recipients and a previous Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) fellow. They shared and reflected with the current cohort how the scholarship opened doors for them in their career and helped them leverage opportunities to attend additional Internet2 conferences.

Dr. Forough Ghahramani, assistant vice president for research, innovation, and sponsored programs at NJEdge and a 2017 Technology Exchange I2I scholarship recipient, has since attended four Internet2 conferences and spoken at seven different sessions at those events. Ghahramani joined the 2024 Community Exchange scholarship cohort at breakfast during the conference and shared her career and personal experiences with them.

Ivy Wells, systems administrator manager at the University of Montana and 2024 I2I Scholarship recipient, said her interaction with Forough had a transformational effect on her and led to a cascade of new interests and conversations. “[Dr. Ghahramani] mentioned U-M Maizey and how generative AI was being used to help students and instructors and outlined some of the benefits in terms of saving time and accessibility. This small piece of information opened my mind to see the uses of AI that I had not considered, which then prompted me to attend an AI-related session presented by Ed Wozencroft from the New Jersey Institute of Technology,” Wells said. “That session completely transformed my perception of generative AI as a tool. I was then able to have a brief discussion with my CIO, Zach Rossmiller, and express my interest in this area as it applies to the University of Montana. That led to further conversation about our research computing and encouragement to pursue that area.”

Impactful Keynote Presentation and Sessions at the 2024 Community Exchange

The Community Exchange had no shortage of invaluable learning sessions, including talks that focused on AI and the positive impacts DEI efforts can have across community solutions.

Conference attendees had the privilege of hearing a thought-provoking keynote presentation from Dr. Kate Darling, ethics and society research lead at Boston Dynamics AI Institute. As part of Dr. Darling’s presentation, she shared the research being done around robotics, human interaction, and attachment.

Torin White, lead data scientist at the University of Chicago and 2024 I2I Scholarship recipient, said she found the keynote address insightful and interesting.

Kate Darling at Community Exchange 2024

“The focus on cutting-edge technologies such as AI and the keynote on robotics and human interaction by Dr. Kate Darling was very relevant and gave me a better idea of what’s coming next, as well as how to think about the opportunities and consequences of these technologies becoming more mainstream,” White said.

As part of their experience, the I2I Scholarship recipients had the opportunity to sit with Dr. Darling after her keynote.

Internet2 inclusivity recipients with Kate Darling.

Another session that stimulated interesting conversations was a presentation from Dr. Sarah Blithe, a research scientist at the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), on their Tech Inclusion Journey (TIJ) toolkit. Dr. Blithe highlighted research showing that institutions and organizations are beginning to do away with DEI efforts, to the point of removing DEI departments altogether.

The TIJ is a decision-support software platform designed to enable organizations to implement systemic, sustainable approaches to creating inclusive computing cultures. The toolkit empowers stakeholders with practical strategies that help them dismantle organizational barriers, attend to the needs of a wide range of intersecting identities, and build inclusive cultures in which people feel they belong and can make outstanding technical contributions.

“One session that particularly resonated with me was Dr. Sarah Blithe’s NCWIT workshop on the Tech Inclusion Journey,” Jha said. “Her discussion on biases affecting underrepresented groups in tech and the importance of fostering a sense of ‘belonging’ rather than ‘fitting in’ struck a chord with me. This concept is pivotal for everyone’s personal and professional success in any field, not just tech, as well as creating true inclusivity within organizations.”

Presenter speaking about systemic culture change.

The overall sentiment of the I2I Scholarship recipients about attending the Community Exchange is that it provides numerous opportunities for learning in several different formats.

“I am relatively new to the IT world, so I have had limited exposure to other departments in central IT and the day-to-day duties those departments have that keep the campus running,” White said. “Through conversations with conference attendees and by attending presentations, I gained a better big-picture idea of the academic IT ecosystem outside my own area of research computing.”

Continuing the Conversation

Each I2I Scholarship recipient described the immense amount of invaluable information they took away from the Community Exchange and how they cannot wait to share what they learned with their home institutions/organizations. They had the opportunity to meet with the I2I Steering Committee and provide feedback to them about their experience and insights for future I2I scholarship recipients. 

“I was asked by the media team about what I would say to someone who has never attended the Community Exchange conference. I said that I would surely encourage them to attend because it’s such an amazing conference with opportunities to meet experienced and passionate professionals who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with whoever is willing to listen,” Oware said.

The scholarship recipients said they look forward to attending future Internet2 conferences and integrating more into the community.

“I am immensely grateful for the I2I Scholarship that enabled me to attend CommEX24, and I look forward to participating in future Internet2 events to continue being part of this supportive and innovative community,” Jha said.

These opportunities are made possible through the commitment and joint sponsorship of Internet2 community members. Thank you to Cisco, Juniper, Internet2 community member Northern Tier Network Consortium (NTNC), and Internet2 for their continued support and generosity in providing these important opportunities.

Cisco, Juniper, and Northern Tier Network Consortium logos.

Next Opportunity to Apply for the Internet2 Inclusivity Scholarship: 2024 Technology Exchange!

If you or someone you know is a woman in IT in the R&E community who could benefit from the I2I Scholarship, the next opportunity will be for the 2024 Internet2 Technology Exchange, held Dec. 9-12 in Boston. The application/nomination process will begin in early August, so be on the lookout for the announcement. We hope to see you in Boston!