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New grad 'pays it forward,' works to make computer science field more equitable and inclusive

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Alexis Lappe has excelled in the classroom as a UW-Eau Claire computer science major, but she also worked hard as a Blugold to make the STEM fields more inclusive and equitable. After she graduates in December, she plans to continue her efforts to bring more women and minorities into computer science and related fields. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

“Pay it forward” may have become a popular saying in recent years, but it’s long been a way of life for Alexis Lappe, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior who will graduate in December with a major in computer science-software engineering and a minor in communication studies.

When Lappe came to UW-Eau Claire, more experienced Blugolds who were active in the student organization OmTech — which stands for Organization of Minorities in STEM — helped her find her place within her major and on campus.

In the years since, Lappe has been paying it forward by doing the same for younger students in the student organization, as well as for students across campus and in the Eau Claire community.

“As a freshman and new to computer science, the incredible upperclassmen in STEM were welcoming, encouraging and wonderful role models,” says Lappe, who grew up in Stratford. “I'm particularly thankful to Lauren Elena Diol, a previous president of the group, who took me under her wing. Her realistic advice about computer science, internships and coursework were a guiding force in how I navigated my collegiate career.

“OmTech has provided me with lifelong friendships, connections and leadership opportunities, and I'm so glad that I've been able to be involved in the club over the past four years.”

As a longtime leader and current president of OmTech, Lappe has initiated many meaningful experiences for its members, says Dr. Rushit Dave, an assistant professor of computer science, who describes Lappe as a “very hard working” and accomplished student.

“Through this organization, she is always organizing talks by people from companies like Microsoft and Amazon,” Dave says of some of Lappe’s accomplishments as OmTech’s leader. “She organized a career fair workshop for the club to help undergraduate students prepare their resume and interviews. I believe her hard work and passion for offering events to other undergraduate students shows her skills of leadership.”

Supporting equity and inclusion

While there are a growing number of women going into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, there still is much work to be done, Lappe says. Hopefully, her success as a student and a leader on campus will help inspire other women to pursue careers in STEM, she says.

“I am passionate about women in STEM because I still get looks of surprise when I tell people that I am in CS (computer science),” Lappe says. “During the first few years of college, I often got asked if I meant CSD (communication sciences and disorders) whenever I mentioned that I was a CS major. In my upper-level courses, I'm often one out of five women in classes of over 40-plus students.

“Even though there are more women in STEM fields than ever before, there is still a long way to go until there is equity and inclusion in CS.”

In addition to her work with the OmTech student organization, Lappe also has served as a STEAM Team mentor and helped lead weeklong coding camps that aim to empower elementary and middle school children to explore technology. She also volunteers at various local coding events.

A leader across campus

In addition to her leadership roles within computer science, Lappe also is a leader and mentor in programs across campus. For example, as a Campus Ambassador, she leads tours of campus for future Blugolds and their families.

She also serves as a mentor in the University Honors Program.

“Alexis is an outstanding student leader,” says Dr. Heather Fielding, director of the University Honors Program. “She’s working as an Honors mentor this semester, teaching a section of our First Year Experience course. She is a big believer in supporting women in computer science and promoting equity and inclusivity in her field. But she’s also a wonderful leader within Honors.”

The Honors Program played a significant role in Lappe’s collegiate career, helping her find community on campus. Honors classes’ small sizes and discussion-based nature helped her build relationships with students from a variety of disciplines.

“Additionally, it encouraged me to reach out to students and faculty in my major,” Lappe says. “This was essential in helping me excel at my major classes, as I had a community of students and faculty to reach out to for help, support and career advice.”

The Honors Program also immersed her in interdisciplinary topics, helping her grow her thinking and understanding, Lappe says. The knowledge and skills she gained through her Honors courses will help her succeed as a professional and as a community member, she says.

“For example, I was able to take a course exploring diversity in literature by reading and analyzing the works of Octavia Butler, a pioneering voice in science fiction,” Lappe says. “This course helped me learn more about race and gender, and participate in civilized discussions with other students who disagreed with me, both of which will aid me in building a more inclusive work environment and society.”

Passion for computer science, UW-Eau Claire

Lappe discovered her talent for leadership during her time as a student at UW-Eau Claire, but she brought her passion for computer science with her to campus.

She was a senior in high school when a family friend offered to give her coding lessons. She knew immediately that her future was in computer science.

“I fell in love with the logical nature of programming,” Lappe says. “Everything, if broken down far enough, could eventually be solved. There was nothing more satisfying than finally fixing a bug and watching your program come to life.

“I also loved that computer science had aspects of design, both in the written code and the interfaces that users interacted with.”

Lappe chose to study at UW-Eau Claire because it offers a challenging and respected computer science program, but also opportunities to pursue her many other interests.

“It had opportunities for me to pursue all my passions,” Lappe says of her soon-to-be alma mater. “I could study computer science and communications while also pursuing opportunities in music and athletics. I also fell in love with the campus environment when I toured. Everyone seemed so friendly.”

Studying abroad was among the opportunities she was excited to find as a Blugold.

Lappe studied abroad in Scotland during the spring of 2020. COVID-19 disrupted her study abroad semester, but it also created some unexpected opportunities, she says.

“Although the experience was cut short due to COVID, I was able to grow and expand my worldview in ways I had never thought possible,” Lappe says. “I also become more confident in my own abilities and independence. Flying overseas alone for the first time during a pandemic will do that.”

Thankful for the Blugold community

While she’s enjoyed her computer science and communication coursework and the many outside-the-classroom experiences she’s found during her years at UW-Eau Claire, Lappe says what she cherishes most from her time as a Blugold are the connections she’s made with other students and her faculty mentors.

“Over the past four years, I've been able to build connections with some of the most incredible computer science students,” Lappe says. “Through late night coding sessions, group projects and exam study sessions, we've all been able to grow our knowledge and our friendship. I've also been so thankful for the amazing mentorship of the CS faculty.”

Within the computer science department, Lappe says she found “amazing role models that inspired me to continue in computer science, even when it was difficult.” Dave is among the current faculty who have been especially supportive, Lappe says, adding that she’s “thankful for Dr. Dave for his encouragements and belief in my ability to succeed.”

A bright future ahead

Lappe completed two summer internships at Travelers Insurance during her college career.

“Even though the internships were virtual, I still learned so much and built many invaluable connections,” Lappe says. “My internships helped me grow my professional skills and helped me solidify my future career goals.”

After she graduates, Lappe will begin her career as a technology leadership development participant for Travelers Insurance.

“I hope to grow my leadership, programming and design skills at this position and am looking forward to working at this incredible company,” Lappe says.

She also hopes to continue her advocacy for equity and inclusion within the STEM fields by joining her company's diversity and inclusion efforts and volunteering at an after-school program that provides opportunities for young women to explore technology.