From SCS to San Jose, Jetcheva Provides a Sense of Belonging for Students

Kayla PapakieThursday, August 24, 2023

Alumna Jorjeta Jetcheva left an indelible mark on SCS by helping to establish Women@SCS when she was a Ph.D. student. That drive to improve the world and create opportunities for others has been a defining element of her career.

Jorjeta G. Jetcheva (SCS 2004) has never been one to sit back and give in to life's challenges. Instead, she proactively creates opportunities and resources for herself and others to succeed — a trait that has defined her career and benefited countless students following in her footsteps.

It also helped her leave an indelible mark on Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.

In the second year of her Ph.D. studies at CMU, Jetcheva attended an event that could have made her despair, but instead inspired her to create change.

"I had gone to this event for women in science and engineering," she said. "There were presentations about how few women there were at the time in these fields and some negative examples from their professional experiences. These were real and important problems, but it made the event super depressing."

Jetcheva joined SCS after graduating summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College, a women's college in Massachusetts, where she earned her bachelor's degree in computer science and mathematics.

"I came from an environment where there were a lot of women and a great support network to one where there were three women out of the 28 students in my entering class," she said. "I thought, 'There has to be a positive way to create this kind of support network at CMU.'"

She took matters into her own hands and started talking to some classmates who shared her sentiments. Seven graduate students, including Jetcheva, met for a picnic lunch in early 1999 and decided to organize a potluck dinner for women in SCS.  

"The dinner exceeded our wildest expectations," Jetcheva said. "Suddenly there were more than 50 of us in a small house, and everybody was super excited. We realized that if we combined women from the different institutes and departments within SCS, there was actually a large number of us."

That gathering grew to become Women@SCS, a still-thriving program for people interested in encouraging and supporting women's academic, social and professional opportunities in the field of computer science. After the successful potluck dinner, Jetcheva asked Sharon Burks, associate dean at the time, if SCS could fund Women@SCS social events. 

"In her usual style, Sharon gave us her unconditional support and a generous allowance," Jetcheva said.

Jetcheva and her classmate Brigitte Pientka served as the first co-chairs of Women@SCS. Under their leadership, the group implemented networking events for graduate students, workshops for middle school girls and a big sister-little sister mentorship program for undergraduates — all while fostering a positive and fun environment.

After the program's initial launch, it wasn't long before the undergraduate students began to run their events on their own. In the fall of that same year, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science Lenore Blum joined SCS and became the faculty mentor for Women@SCS. She added Carol Frieze to the team so the organization could grow.  

"Women@SCS was supercharged under Lenore's guidance," Jetcheva said.

Having left her mark on SCS, Jetcheva finished her Ph.D. in networking and embarked on a career that spans roles in startups, industry, research and academia, while always staying ahead of emerging trends and technologies to determine her next move.

"The job market for networking was pretty bad when I graduated, but smart grid was a growing industry," she said.

So Jetcheva found a role working on smart grid in a networking context at Itron, which specializes in smart meters and smart grid solutions. Knowing that she always wanted to return to academia, she then moved to Fujitsu Research, where she switched her focus to machine learning and, eventually, artificial intelligence. At Fujitsu, Jetcheva won a number of awards, including being a top 10 finalist in the 2016 Fujitsu Next Generation Product Idea Contest for her project, "Robo Butler." The company flew Jetcheva to Japan to present to the CEO and board of directors of Fujitsu Global. Then, as a senior manager and AI distinguished research scientist at Accenture, Jetcheva led a team that built and deployed virtual assistants for companies like UPS.

After 16 years in industry, Jetcheva returned to academia as an assistant professor of computer engineering at San Jose State University, a career move she made to be in an environment where she would have the chance to empower students.

"When I was in industry, I was working 16 hours a day," she said. "I didn't have the energy to do anything else. I feel like I can do more and be more impactful this way."

It's not surprising that Jetcheva spends her time at San Jose State working to provide opportunities for underprivileged students in computer science and engineering, including students from low-income backgrounds. She recently became the principal investigator for a $2.5 million National Science Foundation S-STEM grant focused on creating summer and research programs that empower low-income students from 10th grade through their degree completion at San Jose State. Throughout her expansive career, Jetcheva has won two best paper awards and earned more than 40 patents, and her research has been cited more than 13,000 times. But at the core of her work remains the desire to make computer science and related fields more accessible. She believes that reaching students early can help them establish the confidence to pursue opportunities they may not have considered otherwise.

"Empowering students with knowledge, a growth mindset and a sense of belonging in tech can create a foundation for success and resilience throughout their careers," she said.

Thanks to Jetcheva, many SCS students have gained that resilience. But as Women@SCS approaches its 25th anniversary, Jetcheva says she didn't consider the program's longevity when she helped create it.

"I was so concerned with how to fix things in that moment. I wasn't even thinking about how it might be sustained and for how long," she said. "We just created a small spark, and the results were amazing."

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