Doreen Joseph wants to earn a PhD in computer science, not only for herself but because she believes her example will help empower other students of underrepresented groups.
“That’s how I hope to impact other people,” the senior cyber security major at George Mason University said. “By letting them see someone who looks like them who is excelling in this field.”
A member of Mason’s Honors College and Mason’s Black Scholar of the Year as a junior, Joseph can take a big step in that direction as the university’s first finalist in the two-year-old Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program at Stanford University.
Knight-Hennessy Scholars receive a fully funded graduate degree at the California institution, including stipends for living and academic expenses and one annual trip to and from Stanford.
It is, said LaNitra Berger, director of the Office of Fellowships in the Honors College, “one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for an undergraduate student.”
Joseph, who is from Annandale, Virginia, and 149 other finalists travel to Stanford this week for two days of individual and group exercises—some of which are evaluative—and an individual interview.
It’s the last step in an application process that included three personal mission essays and the submission of transcripts and faculty recommendations.
Seventy-five scholars will receive the award, according to the Knight-Hennessey Scholars website.
“It’s a really big step for me because I had been planning to do a master’s first,” Joseph said. “But I decided to just go for it and see what happens. It’s exciting.”
On its website, the Knight-Hennessy Program says it wants students who are rebellious as well as ambitious. Joseph says she checks both boxes.
“I’ve always thought of myself as an independent spirit,” she said.
Joseph has been active in several organizations—such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the Honors College Multicultural Alliance—that help empower students in underrepresented groups.
She said she mentors engineering students in those groups at Mason and other institutions “to make sure they’re sticking with it.”
“If people don’t see people who look like them in STEM, they’re not going to feel motivated to go into these fields,” Joseph said.
“Both inside and outside the classroom, Joseph demonstrates an extraordinarily high level of commitment to the work of intellectual discovery,” Honors College Dean Zofia Burr said. “Should she encounter a significant challenge in her own work or in the community, she does not back away.”
Joseph said she got that sensibility from her parents, who brought their family to the United States from Kenya in 2005.
“They were both teachers,” Joseph said. “Seeing how their lives weren’t just about them, that made an impact on me.”
“Knight-Hennessy Scholars are selected not only for their academic record, but for their potential to be humble, yet transformative, leaders,” Berger said. “Doreen Joseph embodies those characteristics.”