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A New Mexico State University student whose doctoral research would allow visually impaired children to learn computer programming is among 11 people in the country to receive the Google-CAHSI Dissertation Award.

Emmanuel Utreras grew up with his brother and sister on a small island in Puerto Rico, with his father who was raised in Ecuador and his mother who hails from New York. After earning his degree in electronics and technology in Puerto Rico, he was urged to continue his education.

“Since my native language is Spanish, I searched for universities in the United States with a high Hispanic population,” Utreras said. “After searching and meeting graduate students who highly recommended NMSU’s program, I applied to New Mexico State University, where I was accepted as a Ph.D. student.”

The Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions (CAHSI) was established in 2006 to address the low representation of Hispanics in computing in both higher education and the workforce. In 2019, together with Google Research, CAHSI and the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology and Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate (CMD-IT FLIP) established separate competitive dissertation awards programs across their network of institutions for doctoral students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.

“The award is to be used for the last year for completion of the student’s dissertation requirements,” said Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “NMSU has been involved with CAHSI from its inception, along with other Hispanic-Serving Institutions in this region. Our goal in the next 10 years is to increase the representation of Hispanics to 20 percent or more of those who earn credentials in computing, degrees and certifications that lead to gainful employment.”

Utreras’ research is focused in the human-computer interaction field. He is developing an accessibility tool that will allow young children who are visually impaired to learn programming concepts.

“The profession currently faces low representation among the visually impaired population,” Utreras said. “My project will help children with visual disabilities build programming skills and awaken their interest in the computer science field.”

Utreras said he is honored to receive the Google-CAHSI award and he is grateful to all who have supported him through his educational journey, particularly his wife, Yoshira Ayala, and his family. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a critical part of his research on hold.

“Social distancing and lockdowns have prevented me from validating my study, since the tangible tool has to be used in person,” Utreras said.

“Upon completing my Ph.D., my ultimate goal is to return to Puerto Rico as a faculty researcher,” he added. “I want to actively participate in research training programs focused on underrepresented minorities, and encourage students to pursue a doctorate degree in STEM.”

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