At just 9 years old, Justina Nixon-Saintil emigrated with her family from the island country of Dominica to the South Bronx. The youngest of five children, she and her siblings were frequent witnesses to rampant crime.
The only bright spot, Nixon-Saintil said, was the educational opportunities provided at the Catholic school in Harlem, where her mother was a teacher.
Justina Nixon-Saintil, director of education programs at the Verizon Foundation, shares her story to inspire students in the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program.
"Although she was usually too exhausted to help us with homework, she always made clear that getting a college degree was not optional—it was always what we were expected to do in our household," Nixon-Saintil said.
Nixon-Saintil, director of education programs at the Verizon Foundation, discussed her professional path recently at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark as part of the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program.
Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors. Verizon worked in partnership with Girls Who Code to offer the seven-week intensive program in Newark for the first time.
More than three dozen girls from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and one from California have taken time away from their summer break to enroll in the intensive program to learn and understand computing; mobile app development; robotics; graphics and animation; data structures and algorithms; and Web development and design.
Additionally, these girls receive valuable mentorship from women working in technology, like Nixon-Saintil, every week.
Recent data show there is a significant demand for workers trained in STEM fields and that, currently, too few female students are pursuing degrees in STEM areas to meet the demand.
Currently, women make up the majority of the labor force nationwide, but hold only 25 percent of the jobs in computing and technical fields. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in the computing related fields, but women educated in the U.S. are only on pace to filling 3 percent of these positions.
This is why creating a path for young women to pursue careers in STEM is imperative, Nixon-Saintil said, adding that while access to STEM careers has increased, obstacles remain. "I earned my degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo, but it was tough," she said. "I was never invited to any all-male study groups, and I was the only African-American female graduate in my program."
This is why, after stints with the Department of Energy, and then in to the corporate sector, first at NYNEX, which eventually became Verizon, Nixon-Saintil has moved into corporate philanthropy at the Verizon Foundation, focusing on skills in work and education.
"There’s never a straight path – the road is never going to be easy, but you need to be resolute and have grit," she said. "No matter what adversity you encounter, it's important to know that you can overcome it and persevere and surround yourself with people who are going to be your champions."