Jordan Dodson discovered her love for technology in middle school when she and her father built a desktop computer together. Years later, a suggestion from her mother, who holds a master’s degree in library science from North Carolina Central University, prompted Dodson to learn more about the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS). On the SILS website, Dodson found the information science major and information systems minor, which she thought would pair well with the computer science major she had already begun to pursue at Carolina.
Through study abroad experiences, industry internships, and research with doctoral students and faculty in the SILS Interactive Information Science Laboratory (IISL), Dodson developed a passion for human-computer interaction and user experience (UX) research. Having just graduated with a double major in information science and computer science, she is looking forward to taking her research to the next level at the iSchool Inclusion Institute (i3).
Hosted by the University of Pittsburgh, the yearlong research and leadership development program prepares students from underrepresented populations for graduate study and careers in the information sciences. Admission to the program is highly competitive, with only 25 students from across the country selected each year to become i3 Scholars. Students spend four weeks on the Pittsburgh campus during the introductory summer session, work remotely with members of their research team throughout the year, and then return for two weeks to complete the program.
“The thing that really grabbed me was that it was completely research based, not tied to teaching or a degree program,” Dodson said. “I also liked that it was specifically for people from marginalized communities–which is me–and that the research conducted often focuses on those populations as well. I looked through the past research projects and they were amazing. One was teaching computer science using rap and hip-hop; another looked at the user experience of people in marginalized communities in relation to virtual reality technology.”
When she was considering applying to i3, Dodson sought input from Kristen Bowen, who participated in the program after completing her Bachelor of Science in Information Science (BSIS) from SILS in 2013. Bowen, who earned her Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) from SILS in 2014 and recently returned to pursue doctoral studies, heartily endorsed i3.
“When I found i3 I found my academic home,” she said. “I found a place where even when others may not completely understand me, I know they care about my development and my success. I felt comfortable sharing my perspectives, my concerns, and my passions. My i3 home is a place where I no longer have to be the voice for all black professionals, or female professionals. I can see the richness of diversity in my i3 family’s experiences and thoughts -- and I know that I am home.”
Encouraged by Bowen’s experience and eager for the opportunity to conduct self-directed research, Dodson answered the i3 application essay questions and sought the needed recommendation letters from faculty and staff members at SILS.
“When I heard back that I’d been accepted, I literally cried, I was so happy,” Dodson said.
Though i3 will be a great step forward, it is not the first one Dodson has taken to form supportive networks with other students from underrepresented backgrounds pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields. She and her roommate formed an organization, now known as Black Students in Technology, to help UNC students of color connect with each other.
Food security is another issue Dodson deeply cares about and has worked to tackle during her time at UNC by becoming involved with various organizations, including the Food Recovery Network, Nourish, and Stop Hunger Now. She helped lead an effort that enabled students to order fruit and vegetables from local farmers online and pick them up at a central location on campus.
One of Dodson’s most influential experiences as a UNC student actually took place across the ocean from Chapel Hill. She spent a semester abroad in the fall of 2016 at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom, taking courses in human computer interaction and databases. Dodson said people often question why someone interested in a tech career would bother to study abroad, assuming the tools and knowledge for the field are accessible from anywhere, but Dodson said the insights she gained were invaluable, particularly for her UX pursuits.
“I worked on a prototype for an exercise app for British students attending Sussex,” she said. “Getting user stories from them and understanding how their lives were so different from mine just made all the difference in my perception of everything. The way things are today, we’re not just going to be making tech for people like us, we’re going to be making tech for the world, so it’s important to see more of that world.”
To encourage other UNC students to gain global perspectives, Dodson became a programs chair for the Study Abroad Peer Ambassadors, and hosted the first-ever Mental Health and Study Abroad panel in the fall of 2017.
Exploring the corporate world through internships helped Dodson further develop her interest in UX. While working in IT at Red Hat, data analytics at Cloud Giants, and data engineering at Capitol One, Dodson said she repeatedly gravitated toward areas that explored what users needed and wanted, and ways to meet those expectations. Assisting with research at the IISL in SILS also let her dive further into UX, collaborating with doctoral student Sandeep Avula to gain a better idea of how search tools can help users on a communication platform.
Both Avula and SILS Associate Professor Jaime Arguello, who directs the IISL, said they were impressed by Dodson’s determination to learn more about the research process and her commitment to the work.
“I am very excited that Jordan was admitted to the I3 program,” said Arguello. “I met Jordan in my text data mining course and was highly impressed with her enthusiasm. She wanted to get more exposure to research, so I invited her to become involved in the user study we were running last fall. The study required two different moderators, so Jordan's help was crucial. I encourage all undergraduate students to get involved in research to help expand their knowledge and to give faculty members the opportunity to say concrete things about them in a recommendation letter.”
With commencement now in her rearview, Dodson is looking for a position as a UX researcher or assistant. Though she is glad to be done with school for now, she definitely sees graduate studies in her future. “At some point, I will go back for a master’s focused on human computer interaction,” she said. “That’s my main love.”