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Grace, perseverance, and skill power CS graduate to success

Chenille Lawrence

Computer science graduate Chenille Lawrence offers this advice to incoming college students: explore new things, give yourself grace, and allow yourself to come into the person you are meant to be.

Lawrence took her own advice to heart; in the past five years, she relocated from Jamaica to the U.S., graduated high school for a second time, and navigated the college admissions process. She funded her UIC education through scholarships, changed majors, sought leadership roles at UIC, obtained her bachelor of science degree, and landed a job as a software engineer.

Her path

Lawrence came to the U.S. at 16, after completing high school in Jamaica–as with other Commonwealth countries, high school ends after grade 11, followed by an optional two-year study called sixth form. Having left Jamaica before sixth form, she enrolled at Perspectives/IIT Math and Science Academy in the Bronzeville neighborhood to obtain another year of secondary education.

Not six months after her arrival, the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person learning. Lawrence found herself trying to adjust to a new country online while navigating the U.S. college admissions process.

“It was definitely an interesting journey,” Lawrence said. “There were a bunch of Chicago Public School Strikes, and my SAT was canceled twice.”

Her difficulty selecting a college was compounded by her ineligibility for Federal Student Aid as a recent immigrant.

Lawrence was introduced to UIC through the CHANCE Program, an initiative designed to assist the university with its goal of increasing recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of underrepresented students. She learned about the program from her high school counselor and took an introductory computer science summer course for college credit before she began at UIC, and was part of their first Digital Scholar cohort.  The CHANCE Program offers scholarships through corporate partnerships, which funded her first year. She was then named a ComEd Scholar, which provided funding to complete her degree.

“What I liked about UIC was the level of support I felt,” Lawrence said. “There are so many groups that help you succeed.”

Initially, Lawrence majored in civil engineering. She realized what she loved most was the problem solving behind all engineering disciplines. Lawrence’s first foray into coding was when she took CS111, Program Design I, for free through Break Through Tech Chicago (BTT), a partnership between academia and industry aimed at increasing gender diversity in the tech world.

“I realized I had a knack for coding and actually enjoyed it,” Lawrence said. “I had a lot of conversations, including with Amita Shetty, the director of BTT, who also has a background in civil engineering. I made the switch, knowing I could always go back.”

Lawrence also found help during this challenging transition from Elsa Soto, the director of UIC’s Equity and Inclusion in Engineering Program. Lawrence was a student worker with the program.

A stellar track record

Lawrence’s college record belies any doubts she may have had about her skills and ability. She held an internship at the career accelerator Braven, a Sprinternship™ as a software engineer at Morningstar through BTT, and another internship as a technical program manager last summer at Google. And, Lawrence was a Knowles Scholar through UIC’s Women in Engineering Program.

She also worked as a Discovery Partnership Institute (DPI) research scholar on their net zero infrastructure research team, and was selected to serve on a student panel when Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson conducted his Chicago education tour.

“I was the representative for UIC/DPI, which was a cool moment; I was able to talk about my experience to the mayor and the chancellors from all three University of Illinois schools,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence also worked as a teaching assistant for CS 151, Mathematical Foundations of Computing, with Clinical Associate Professor Gonzalo Bello and with Clinical Assistant Professor Adam Koehler for CS 251, Data Structures.

Lawrence was a member of the UIC Honors College. She completed her capstone project research on bias and AI, investigating the impact of demographic ratios on the way different facial detection models operate.

“One of the things really triggered me was a case in Detroit where a pregnant woman was falsely identified by facial detection software as being a carjacker. She was eight months pregnant, and they detained her for 12 hours,” Lawrence said. “The models were wrong. This is one of six cases where people were misidentified by facial detection software, and the commonality was that all the people that were falsely identified were Black.”

Lawrence introduced different levels of bias with various rations of Black and White faces, trying to minimize the level of bias in a model. She placed second in the  Undergraduate Research Forum for this work, Unveiling Bias in Image Recognition: Investigating the Impact of Demographic Ratios on Facial Detection Models

She served on the organization team for SparkHacks, the UIC Hackathon, and was vice president, then president of the UIC chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

It was through NSBE that Lawrence found her new role, as a software engineer with John Deere in their West Loop office. She knew recruiters from the company who worked with NSBE and other student groups, who let her know about an opening on their team.  She interviewed and was hired as a software engineer.

After graduating , magna cum laude from both UIC’s College of Engineering and Honors College, Lawrence spent a few weeks with family, and starts with John Deere in mid- June.

“College wasn’t easy, but knowing that I had people to go to on campus, that I had support outside of my village at home, made it much easier to accomplish,” Lawrence said.