Jayla Williams' passion is problem solving. Fortunately, 2020 has provided a surplus of practical problems that need to be resolved. Second year Fisk University is participating for the first time in Black Enterprise's annual BE Smart Hackathon hosted by American Airlines.
As part of a five-person team of Fisk engineers, Williams is contributing to a data processing project that will help airlines accommodate travelers with breathing difficulties. As she explains: "We can ensure safe departure times and ensure that passengers with health problems are not surrounded by people when they arrive at the airport."
The effort is a creative technical adaptation to living under a pandemic designed to protect both lives and jobs – a perfect distillation of the BE Smart ethos and a telling example of Williams' creative spirit.
Jayla spoke about her journey and where it might lead from her home in Hillsboro, Oregon, near Portland, where she studied remotely until she graduated with a computer science degree.
“I was born in Los Angeles, but we moved to Oregon when I was one. I've always been creative. I enjoyed art, painted, sang, played instruments. I studied the flute for seven years. I especially enjoyed writing songs. I think I've always been drawn to the idea of creating something out of nothing – something just from the tools I have around me. "
At first glance, it's hard to see how a love for the creative arts connects an emerging career in technology, but it was a natural transition for Williams. She excelled at math and science, and earned a 4.0 average in high school. College was a given, but where?
“I applied to 31 colleges and most of them accepted me, including Fisk. To be honest, I really didn't look closely at Fisk. It wasn't my first choice. Really, they picked me and offered me a full-time scholarship. “In addition to the financial one, there was another important deciding factor. Williams' older brother attended Dillard University in New Orleans and sold it with the prospect of attending an HBCU.
“I attended mostly white public schools. I've never seen that as a particular problem; it was just the norm. But I was fascinated by Fisk and its history. And my brother said to me, “You don't know what you're missing out on – learn black history outside of Black History Month and don't feel like a minority all the time.” So I made a leap of faith and I'm glad that i did it. I've made good friends at Fisk. And I've developed a lot. And so many bright and ambitious black people motivated me to be successful. "
Williams entered Fisk as a physics major, but a single computer course convinced her that she had found her calling. Computer science speaks for its creative spirit and analytical skills. And she knows she has landed on a path that leads to opportunities to "be innovative and offer useful solutions".
In the meantime, Williams enjoyed the BE Smart Hack ("I learned a lot, especially in the workshops"). And she's fully engaged to Fisk, if only remotely. "It's a challenge. I miss my friends and I walk around campus."
Virtual life has not diminished their enthusiasm, and there is no shortage of role models. Tech Superheroes United's hackathon theme was inspired by Hollywood and comic book heroes, but Jayla takes more direct inspiration from her peers – social media influencers and YouTubers who build big followers on small platforms. "Creative people show the way," she said.
As she aptly put it earlier: "Make something out of nothing."