Jessica Le and Computer Science Chair at UTSA Jianwei Niu.
Jessica Le (right) stands with Jianwei Niu, computer science chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio and one of Le's mentors. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jessica Le’s 7-year-old daughter called her “the boring mom” this past semester.

Between taking 18 credit hours at the University of Texas at San Antonio, working part-time as a teaching assistant, and juggling five school projects, Le would only rarely find the time to sneak into daughter Kaitlyn Tran’s room to give her a kiss goodnight around 9:15 p.m. when she got home. On most nights, a mountain of schoolwork still awaited her.

“She’s been very patient,” said Le, who was 20 years old when she gave birth to Kaitlyn. “I know there are times when I can’t read her a bedtime story, or I can’t play with her, or I can’t take her anywhere.”

It all paid off, however, as Le walked the stage Dec. 16 at UTSA’s fall commencement. In January, Le will move out of her ex-boyfriend’s house to Houston, where she’ll start a job in Chevron’s cybersecurity department. She said she couldn’t have done it without strong women who served as her role models at the university – in spite of the difficult odds of finding one.

Less than a fifth of the professors in the Department of Information Systems and Cybersecurity are women. When men made up the overwhelming the majority of her classmates and there wasn’t a single woman on her team during her summer 2017 internship at Chevron, self-doubt crept in from time to time.

The data on industry professionals paint an even starker picture: Women make up just 11 percent of the information security field, according to the Center for Cyber Safety and Education’s 2017 Women in Cybersecurity Report.

“There aren’t a lot of strong female leaders [in cybersecurity],” Le said. “I did struggle finding one.”

Jessica Le
Jessica Le wants to give her daughter the educational opportunities she did not always have. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Although just six of the 33 faculty members that teach cybersecurity at UTSA are women, Le eventually found three female mentors during her time there: associate professor of cybersecurity Nicole Beebe, Department of Computer Science Chair Jianwei Niu, and assistant professor of computer science Amanda Fernandez. Niu’s department comprises nine female faculty members and 28 men, but of the 19 tenured and tenure-track professors, just one is female, Niu said.

About 21 percent of UTSA’s information systems and cybersecurity majors are women, but Le looked up to Alifya Musa, a female peer who graduated last year and was Le’s mentor during her Chevron internship.

Le served in the fall semester as a research and teaching assistant under Beebe, whose serious demeanor sometimes overawed Le’s peers. But Beebe gave her valuable professional insight, which Le used ultimately to decide against pursuing a public sector job, and the two mothers bonded with each other.

“I would have never known [Le] had anything but an easy path to get where she’s at today,” Beebe said. “As it turns out, she has faced several challenges in life – a couple that would have stopped many people from completing a degree in cybersecurity. But Jessica is tenacious. She never gives up, sets her sights, and meets her goals.”

Le’s circuitous route to becoming a cybersecurity professional is riddled with starts and stops. As a teen, she envisioned a future in cosmetology, but she never completed the certification that her high school offered. She spent about nine years on and off in the restaurant service industry – taking her first job in the business when she was just 15. She made enough to support herself and, later, her daughter but not to have the life she wanted for her.

Born in Irving, Le said she went to “crappy schools” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but she is driven to give her daughter the educational opportunities she did not always have. When she accepted the job at Chevron, she immediately looked up the top schools in the city. Based on her research, she identified the part of town she wanted to live in.

Thanks to a salary in the $80,000 range, money won’t be an issue when it comes to finding housing in a good school zone.

Le’s mother and stepfather moved to San Antonio when Le was eight months pregnant. After giving birth, she took some prerequisites at San Antonio College, got her associate’s online, and moved back to Dallas where she was head hostess at Robert De Niro-owned Japanese restaurant Nobu Dallas.

She returned to San Antonio in 2013 and enrolled at UTSA to study community health and preventive services. After a year of hospital rotations, however, she decided it wasn’t for her.

In the summer of 2015, Le switched her major to information systems and cybersecurity and added a minor in digital forensics. But her first two years were tough, she recalled.

Seeing her male classmates coding around the clock was discouraging. It seemed so natural to them. She wondered whether there was a place for her soft skills in a highly technical profession.

Looking for a way to supplement her classroom learning, she joined the UTSA chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W). The organization equips its members with resources to accelerate their growth as aspiring professionals in the computing fields. But one of the most powerful tools it provided Le and her female peers was a chance to interact with employers, who shared internship opportunities and full-time openings.

She quickly rose from the organization’s secretary to its vice-chair. Serving alongside her peer mentor Musa, who chaired the chapter, Le helped grow ACM-W’s membership from 10 students to 50. Niu, who advised the ACM-W group, said socially reinforced gender norms play a huge part in the dearth of women studying the computing fields. Indeed, just 16.4 percent of UTSA’s computer science majors are women, below the national average

“There are so many unconscious biases, so many social patterns for female students – you have to do this, you have to do that,” Niu said. “One thing they may want to try is ‘Give yourself a chance to see if you are able to accomplish [your goal]’ – no matter if it’s computer science, or information systems, or cybersecurity. There are so many opportunities. All the employers I’ve talked to, they all show strong interest in hiring females.”

UTSA Provost Kimberly Andrews Espy said although Beebe and Niu represent a few of the leaders in their respective departments that empower their female students through mentorship, the number of faculty in underrepresented areas, including science, technology, engineering, and math, is lower than the university would like. UTSA’s aims to increase representation of female professors in the STEM fields by 50 percent over the next decade, Espy said.

“That’s a huge lift because the number of folks in the pipeline is really relatively small,” she said, adding that the university’s deans have been charged with drafting plans to meet that goal. Search committees will play a role in finding and recruiting top academic talent in those underrepresented groups, she said.

Although the female mentorship she received was crucial to reaching her goals, the strongest motivation came from her daughter.

“I’m doing this all for her,” she said. “I would say if I didn’t have my daughter I probably wouldn’t be in school. I’m grateful that I had my daughter at such a young age because now I can’t just be selfish; I have to provide for her.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.