Shonda and Shalisha Witherspoon are standouts.
The identical twins graduated at the top of their class at Florida International University on Monday with a 3.95 GPA in the College of Engineering and Computer Science — becoming first in their family of six kids to graduate from college.
But they’re not done. As black women with plans to develop video games and apps in Japan, the Witherspoon twins, 25, are crossing both gender lines and lines of color in a field sorely lacking diversity. They earned bachelor’s degrees in information technology and plan to pursue graduate degrees in computer science at FIU.
“They’re path-breakers in every way,” said FIU president Mark B. Rosenberg.
As kids, Shonda and Shalisha fell in love with computers and Japanese art known as anime. They credit their older brother, who would take apart gadgets at home and encourage them to draw their own cartoon characters in the anime style.
Once they got to college, Shonda and Shalisha tried to go their separate ways. They dabbled in law studies, journalism and art. Homeschooled, it was the first time the Witherspoons found themselves alone – without a twin or an older sibling to lean on.
“It was very nerve-racking,” Shalisha said.
They soon found their way back to their original interests — art and computers. Together, they enrolled in the College of Engineering and Computing to pursue a degree in information technology. As students, they played on their strengths: Shalisha wouldn’t let her sister procrastinate, while Shonda shared her notes, which always seemed to be better.
“I know we’re individuals, but I know we also like the same things and if we work as a team, we’ll be better,” said Shonda, 25.
Every now and then, the twins would look around their classrooms and notice there were no other students like them: no women and no students of color. But it was a study abroad experience — six weeks in Japan — that really made the Witherspoons reflect on issues of diversity in the tech world and beyond.
Shonda remembered how, during her trip, a stranger tugged her hair while visiting an an ancient religious temple. The woman was apparently amazed by the unfamiliar look and texture.
Back in the States, the sisters became ambassadors and recruiters for students of color to participate in study-abroad programs.
“Our perspective was very different from others and I felt it was important to share that perspective,” Shonda said.