Dr. Nicki Washington

Dr. Nicki Washington Blazes New Trails in Computer Science

How do you succeed in college and have a ball doing it? A major like computer science may not seem like fun for everyone, but for Dr. Nicki Washington, ′00 academic success and fun go hand-in- hand. In fact, she knows enough about the topic to have written a book titled “Stay Prepped: Ten Steps for Succeeding in College and Having a Ball Doing it,” available April 2013.

Washington is continuing the JCSU legacy started by her parents, Reginald and DeLois Washington, who graduated in 1969 and 1972/1973 respectively. It is a family tradition of which she is proud. Both she and her parents credit former president Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy as a major influence in her decision to attend JCSU. “Nicki didn’t want to come to JCSU originally, because she’d grown up around Smith,” says her mother, DeLois. However, a late encounter with Dr. Yancy at the 1996 CIAA Tournament changed her mind.

“I met Dr. Yancy at the CIAA Tournament that year, and she asked where I wanted to attend college. I told her my first choice was Hampton University, but I was waiting to hear about my financial aid. She asked me to wait two weeks before making a decision. The next week, I’d received a letter from her with a full scholarship to JCSU. I changed my mind because I felt like I was genuinely wanted at the university, and she took a special interest in me enough to do that.”

It was at JCSU where Washington began her nine-year journey into a field relatively uncharted among black females. The road led to a doctorate degree and several “firsts.” She is the first computer science graduate from JCSU to earn a Ph.D. and first African-American female to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from N.C. State University.

Now that she is no longer what her parents call “a professional student,” Washington is enjoying putting her years of academics behind her to practice in her field. After earning her Ph.D., she accepted a position as a senior member of the technical staff with The Aerospace Corporation in Chantilly, Va. However, she left this position after one year to accept a position as an assistant professor in Howard University’s Systems and Computer Science Department, becoming Howard’s first black female professor in computer science.

At Howard, she teaches undergraduate courses in C++ and JAVA programming and mobile application development, and graduate courses in networking and computer science education.  Washington currently runs a research group that includes one undergraduate (performing research on the use of networking in emergency preparedness and first response) and two Ph.D. students (performing research on computer science education). She has also mentored numerous undergraduate students over the past seven years in research in a job she “loves.”

Computer science is a wide-open field with many career possibilities, according to Washington. Looking back at her own decisions throughout her life, Washington sees herself as a pioneer in a field that she was exposed to at an early age. “I always had computers around the house and took programming courses in high school,” she says. In addition, her mother is a retired software engineer from IBM. That early exposure, along with the support and encouragement of her JCSU professor Dr. Naguib Attia (the brother of Dr. Magdy Attia, chair of the Council of Deans) played a major part in her decision to switch majors from marketing to computer science as a freshman.

Her decision to pursue a doctorate degree was solely influenced by former president, Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy. “Dr. Yancy called me at home during Thanksgiving break of my senior year and told me she was nominating me for a fellowship to pursue my Ph.D. I told her I didn’t want to pursue a Ph.D., just an M.S. She told me she was still nominating me and I should apply. If I won the fellowship, I could decide then what to do.” Fortunately, Washington did win the esteemed 2000 David and Lucille Packard HBCU Fellowship, and later the 2003 NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-Doctoral Fellowship to pursue her Ph.D.

Washington enjoys sharing her experiences with students at JCSU when she returns to campus for various events each year. She has also documented what she learned about preparing for the college admissions process in her first book “Prepped for Success: What Every Parent Should Know About the College Application Process,” which is full of information for students, parents and college admissions professionals. Her second book, “Stay Prepped,” is based on her own experiences as a college student and observations of her current and former students who grapple with challenges like time management, adjusting to college life, and study skills.

Her parents say they didn’t want to push her to apply at JCSU because they knew Nicki had a mind of her own and would use it to follow her own path. “That was her decision and her decision alone,” says Reggie with a smile. That path has broken new ground in STEM, and it is one that Washington hopes to see more African-American female students follow.