Twin graduates pave the way for women in STEM

Shalisha and Shonda Witherspoon with Professor Naphtali Rishe, who heads the High Performance Database Research Center

Information technology majors and sisters Shonda and Shalisha Witherspoon knew they would stand out in their STEM classes because they would be two of only a handful of girls – if any – in class. So, they decided they’d stand out because of their achievements too.

Identical twins, the two dress the same almost every day, except possibly for an accessory or two. They finish each other’s sentences and admit to often thinking the same thing at the same time – a connection their friends dubbed twinlepathy.

And they are also living proof that women can excel tremendously in the traditionally male-dominated STEM field. They each graduated – today – with the highest GPA in the College of Engineering and Computing for the spring 2016 commencement: 3.95.

“If you work hard at something, you really can accomplish your goals,” Shonda says. “We always wanted to stand out, improve our resumes. It’s because we worked hard that we accomplished this.”

The twins, two of six siblings, say they became self-starters because of their homeschool experience and their mom, who always pushed her children to succeed.

The twins also followed in the footsteps of their older brother, who was interested in computers. “Once we started programming, we thought it was so cool,” Shalisha explains.

Shonda adds, “Programming is cool because it’s like a puzzle. But this puzzle has different answers. There’s not really a wrong answer. It’s, ‘How did you come to that answer?’”

In 2011, the twins transferred to FIU from Miami Dade College, and took classes with FIU Professor Norman Pestaina. By the end of the semester, Pestaina recommended them for student assistant positions in Professor Naphtali Rishe’s High Performance Database Research Center at FIU. They’ve been working there ever since.

“Dr. Rishe saw our potential,” Shonda says. “We’ve learned so much. We ended up learning about databases because he literally wrote the book on it. It was also our first job, giving us a lot of experiences that are relevant to our degrees.”

The sisters make programs that process images and geographically coded data like Google maps. They work with data such as real-estate and census information for their projects. The information is available online to the public.

“Those two ladies are extraordinarily responsible,” Rishe says. “They are very smart, they have great attention to detail, they are always reliable. Any project they are asked to do, it’s done perfectly. They are experts in geographic data analytics. They manipulate very large big data sets, and they have excelled. They have a great career path in front of them.”

The sisters will begin their master’s degrees in computer science at FIU come fall. They will continue working with Rishe, now as graduate research assistants.

Shonda and Shalisha entered the 2013 Association of Florida Teachers of Japanese (AFTJ) state yonkoma manga contest. Shonda’s comic details the strange relationship between two students Shonda won best comic strip in the 2013 Association of Florida Teachers of Japanese state contest.

Programming is not the only language the girls have learned. The sisters are proficient in Japanese, as they minored in Japanese language and literature.

They fell in love with Japanese culture and anime while watching the cartoon “Sailor Moon.” One of their sisters bought them a Japanese language book when they were older, and by the time they began taking Japanese classes at FIU, they already knew the language’s alphabet and sounds.

They took a study abroad trip, visiting Kyoto in Japan during summer of 2014. They wrote a blog detailing their experiences such as visiting temples and castles and learning about geisha and taiko drumming.

The twins are hoping to find an internship in software engineering in Japan next summer. Their ultimate goal is to move to Japan and start their own software engineering business together.

Shalisha won best historical comic with her entry, based on a true story, in the 2013 Association of Florida Teachers of Japanese state contest.

One thing Shalisha says she hopes students learn from their story: “As cliché as it sounds, follow your dreams – even if it seems out there like going to Japan with your twin.”

She adds that they appreciate how FIU has helped them achieve their dreams, offering opportunities from great professors to amazing programs that impact the lives of many students, especially minorities. The twins, who were ambassadors for FIU’s Women Who Lead Conference in 2015, also hope girls will see it’s possible for women to thrive in STEM.

The sisters walked across the graduation stage this morning, becoming the first in their family to graduate from college.

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