“Empowering women to lead” is the slogan for the Miss America pageant, and it’s also fitting for Miss Augusta University Cierra Williams as she prepares to graduate from Augusta University this week with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from AU’s School of Computer and Cyber Sciences.
Williams knows what it’s like to stick out as one of few women in the field, but she hasn’t let that stop her, especially now that she has a platform where her voice is amplified. It’s an opportunity she doesn’t wish to waste.
“My college career has been very interesting because I’ve been one of the few women in classes that are made up of mostly men,” Williams said. “I feel that AU, especially the computer and cyber sciences program, all the professors are really great about being inclusive and just really helping everybody and not excluding anyone. We have a great support system with groups like Girls Who Code and other organizations and clubs that really help everyone get involved and make meaningful connections.”
A change of plans
Williams, who plans to eventually pursue her master’s degree once she narrows down a focus, admits she hasn’t always been interested in computer science as a career.
“I originally wanted to be a hair stylist. I was not interested in tech when I was younger,” Williams said. “I think of myself as one of those girly-girls who loves makeup, I love to have my hair done, but I actually had a strong passion for math. I was one of those people who, if I didn’t get straight 100s on my math tests, I would be crying. My math teachers would always recommend things like engineering because of my strong math background.”
While engineering never seemed to move the needle with Williams, one of her middle school math teachers took note of her passion and understanding of math. The teacher’s husband was a computer programmer who taught Python, a coding language. Through meeting him, Williams saw how cool and rewarding computers and programming could be.
“She said she wanted to bring her husband to meet me and show me some of the cool things he did, and I was like ‘This is so cool!’ and I really wanted to learn how to do that,” said Williams. “From there I took an AP computer science class in high school and I loved it, but I wasn’t the best at it.”
And it was in those early classes where Williams began to take note of just how uniquely positioned she was.
“Starting off, there were only two girls in the class, so I was in a class with a bunch of guys that had already been building their own computers at that point, and I was just starting out, so that was a little bit intimidating,” Williams said. “But I knew it was something that, while I wasn’t the best at it, I wanted to grow at it and something I actually wanted to learn, and from then on I knew I wanted to get my undergrad in computer science.”
Her path to Augusta University
While at Grovetown High School, Williams applied for and enrolled in a program through Columbia County Work Based Learning where she was able to work as a student worker with the National Security Agency through the NSA High School Work Study Program.
That experience, which led to her becoming a target digital network analyst, furthered her passion for STEM, especially when she continued to notice she was not only one of the few women in her classes, but also one of the only Black women.
“Currently, Black women make up just 3% of the workforce in tech fields, which is crazy to me,” Williams said. “I love not being cookie cutter. I love being the different one, so when I signed up for that first class in high school, and I was one of only two girls in a class of 30 boys, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m sticking with this. I’m going to be the different one.’ Being a minority and a woman in the field never stopped me.”
When Williams began looking for college programs where she could pursue her new passion, it seemed like a no-brainer for the Grovetown native. Her mom, Tiffany Carter, is a 1997 graduate of Augusta University’s legacy institution Augusta State, and AU’s computer and cyber science classes are certified by the National Security Agency, making it a fairly easy choice, she said.
On top of her familial connection and NSA certification attached to AU’s computer and cyber science programs, the small class size appealed to Williams and helped her establish a support system through groups like Girls Who Code and Brown Girls Who Code. She was even inducted into the computer and cyber sciences honor society, Upsilon Pi Epsilon.
“One thing that makes AU special to me, and one of the reasons why I chose to stay here, is there are a lot of universities that are bigger, but you don’t really get that one-on-one attention with your professors. I really enjoyed the fact that students are able to build those interconnections within the program with both professors and our fellow students. It speaks volumes for your growth, so that is one of the things I really did enjoy.”
During the fall 2022 semester, she was part of a panel that spoke to students from Augusta University and Mississippi State University’s VICEROY program about her role as a target digital network analyst for the NSA at Fort Gordon.
Trying her hand at pageants
As a junior, Williams decided to take part in the Miss Augusta University pageant. While she didn’t ultimately win, the positive experience, as well as encouragement and tips from that year’s winner Chelsea Paulding, meant it wasn’t the last time she would make a run at the crown.
In between the two Miss AU pageants, Williams took part in two other local pageants with the hopes of getting better at competing.
“I loved the journey because it was the first pageant I had ever done, and I thought it would be a great way to get move involved with AU,” Williams said. “I’m from the area, born and raised here, and I live off campus, so I’m one of those people who goes to class and then goes back home, and I told myself that I wanted to get involved because this is my university. I wanted to get more involved and build more connections. Since I enjoyed it last year, I decided to come back this year.
“I didn’t see myself as the traditional pageant girl, but I told myself I would keep practicing,” she said. “I watched interviews with other contestants, I practiced confidence, and decided I wouldn’t worry what anyone else was doing but me. I also reached out to Chelsea and asked her to teach me everything she knew. I was ready.”
But she wasn’t fully ready for what would happen just before the pageant. In the weeks leading up to the event, Williams’ grandfather, Dr. Kenneth Foster, with whom she had a close relationship, passed away. She considered withdrawing from the pageant but decided to honor his 30-plus-year legacy as a music teacher across the CSRA by performing a piano piece, Blue Mood, which she never had the chance to play for him.
“I told myself, ‘I’m playing for him.’ It was pretty significant that he wasn’t there, but I know he sees, and I know he knows,” she said. “He wouldn’t want me to be sad and stop my life. I’m going to continue this in honor of him, and winning meant a lot to me. It’s one of the biggest leadership opportunities that I have had, so I was excited to see what I can do to expand my boundaries. The crown means I have been serving Augusta University.”
The Miss Augusta pageant falls under the Miss America banner, so when Williams was crowned Miss Augusta University, she was immediately placed into the running for Miss Georgia and ultimately Miss America. While she maintains the crown, she plans to do what she can to help shine a light on women in STEM.
“I love that Miss America 2.0 is emphasizing education for women so much more. I think it’s a turning point that speaks volume to the Miss America organization. I think Augusta University is representing this movement well, and I’m glad that I can be a figure helping to expand education. If you want to get a degree, regardless if it’s in a male-dominated area, any woman can do that as well.”