Break Through Voices: In Conversation with Kate Atchison, Site Director at Break Through Tech DC at UMD

The best way to understand the shape and power of Break Through Tech’s work is to hear from the people who are part of it — from the young women participating in our innovative programs to the leaders who host those programs inside their organizations and the team members who run our programs in cities around the country and online.


Meet Kate Atchison, site lead of Break Through Tech DC at UMD., as well as the Associate Director of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing (I4C). The University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) is the state’s flagship university and one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities. A global leader in research, entrepreneurship and innovation, the university is home to more than 40,000 students, 10,000 faculty and staff, and 297 academic programs.

What does this work mean to you personally? How does Break Through Tech’s mission line up with your own career focus?

Growing up, I loved math and solving problems, but I never considered a career in tech. I was always drawn to the social impact side. After graduating with a degree in higher education, my first job out of grad school was career advising for tech students. I spent the entire summer reading tech blogs and books, connecting with tech companies, and immersing myself in the space, as it was a completely new field for me.

A few years later, I was given the opportunity to grow the Maryland Center for Women in Computing’s  as its first full-time hire. We wentfrom being a few summer camps to raising over $5 million for different grants and programs. Over time we’ve evolved into the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing; when Break Through Tech came to campus, managing its programming was a natural extension of my existing role.

Given the presence of the Iribe Initiative and other tech inclusivity efforts at UMD, what makes Break Through Tech an essential addition to this ecosystem? 

Break Through Tech has quickly become a central tech hub for women and nonbinary students who are curious about tech but don’t know whether or how they might fit in. They might do our Guild program, or do a Sprinternship, or attend our Career Bootcamp, to learn about all the different tech-related majors we offer. The most important thing we can do is help students find their right path.

“The most important thing we can do is help students find their right path.”

We hear a lot of appreciation for our Guild program, which provides an intentional, safe space for students to learn that can then make it less overwhelming to jump into your first coding class. It boosts confidence — people who go through the program come out feeling like,  “I CAN do this.” They also find community — ”these are my people.” We are very focused and intentional about how we cultivate that community.

In our first three years, we’ve served over 2,200 students across a wide range of majors. We’re making a huge impact.

Read the story of freshman computer science major Gabrielle Gross’s experience participating in a Break Through Tech Guild at UMD.

Tell us how you’re collaborating with local companies.

Both the Guild and Sprinternship programs give students exposure to a range of local employers, from bigger companies like Mastercard and Microsoft to start-ups. One of our students, Veda Singireddy, who worked with local startup Goodshuffle, summed it up well when she said, “During my Sprinternship, I realized that I loved working in the tech space—and that actually working in the real world teaches you valuable skills and lessons that I can’t learn sitting in my dorm studying.”

The things our students create with our local partners are really incredible. Sprinterns at Ticketmaster visualized database metrics for Ticketmaster’s season ticket sales application and built a Slackbot to send reports about the databases. Easy Dynamics Sprinterns created data visualizations to turn GitHub data into a usable Gantt chart for project managers. Capitol Interactive Sprinterns used virtual reality photo capture to create an interactive virtual tour experience along DC’s historic U Street. There are so many other examples.

Read how UMD students created solutions to cybersecurity, IT, and other tech challenges through the Break Through Tech Sprinternship program.

Any final thoughts? 

I would have benefited from Break Through Tech when I was in college. I was coding on MySpace, troubleshooting network issues. I was the only girl in Calc. If I would have done a Guild my freshman year, I would have absolutely found a career in tech. It all worked out — I love what I do — but these programs are definitely needed.