Profile By: Benjamin Divis

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Part Seven Back to School

Neil was a bright kid and his parents knew he was bound for college. Unfortunately, as they were living off only one salary, they lacked the money necessary to send him there. Sheila, who had recently joined Mensa, decided it was high time to return to the workforce, preferably as a programmer, so they could ensure a bright future for Neil. However, it had been ten years since she had worked in the field. Computer technology had evolved and she would have to be trained all over again. The answer lay at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. UNO, it should be noted, “was the first Nebraska university to receive computer science accreditation from the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET” (Dept. of Computer Science). That autumn, Sheila was back in school and she was not leaving without a degree.

Initially, it seemed like Sheila would be spending another four years at university but the classes she had taken at Edinburgh and Pittsburgh carried over despite how much time had passed. “It was like one night I went to bed a sophomore and woke up a senior” (Interview). She recalls feeling extra pressure to excel in all her classes. After all, she was married to the university librarian. “I couldn’t get less than a B in anything or I’d never be able to show my face on campus again!” (Interview).  Computer science as a major was still in its infantile state and Sheila hit a roadblock along the way. She minored in English, which was not at the time an acceptable option, deemed an area of interest too far removed from the digital field. Sheila disagreed. “I wrote a letter explaining why I thought English should be allowed. I said, ‘If anyone needs to know how to write English sentences well, it’s computer scientists!’” (Interview). Her argument persuaded the committee to accept her proposal and in May of 1984, Sheila Runyon graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree over twenty years in the making.

It is rapidly becoming public knowledge that computer science and mathematics have been struggling to appeal to the female demographic. Various studies have attributed this lack of women in these academic circles to different causes but Sheila recalls having little trouble associating with other female students during her time at UNO. Quite contrary to the stereotype that women simply don’t have a mind for numbers and coding, she and her friends shined in this area. “Two of us made Magna Cum Laude, one graduated Summa Cum Laude, and the other Cum Laude. None of the boys graduated with honors, as I recall” (Interview). Her year of graduation is an important one in the history of women in computer science. 1984 was the year when they occupied 37 percent of the academic environment, an apex the field sadly has yet to duplicate (Cohoon and Aspray x). Sheila found employment as a programmer at Union Pacific soon after graduation, where she would work for the next fifteen years until early retirement in 1999.

 

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Part Eight Contributions to UNO

During the 1980s, the University of Nebraska at Omaha alongside just about every other state college in the nation, experienced budget cuts due to a struggling economy that resulted in the forfeiture of certain programs. One department hit particularly hard was women’s athletics. According to the Gateway, “Track and baseball were eliminated in 1985 after the Legislature cut $366,500 from UNO’s athletic budget” (McAndrews 10). Baseball was salvaged by a donation from the College World Series Committee but track was dead in the water. This prompted the foundation of the UNO Women’s Walk (now the Claussen-Leahy Run/Walk) in 1986 by UNO women’s athletics director Connie Claussen. Sheila was one of eight team captains the very first year, her peers including Lou Ann Weber, Sharon Trussel, Cherri Mackenberg, and Mary Lou Fry (McAndrews 10). Together they managed to raise $12,000 with