Michelyn Odei: Protecting Cyberspace While Lifting Up Others

Michelyn Odei always has a plan.  

Whether it’s looking five or ten years down the line, this computer science major specializing in cybersecurity has always had clear goals for her future that she’s been determined to meet head-on. This first-generation college student and proud young Ghanaian woman wants to make her own mark in the fast-evolving world of digital defense, but she’s equally focused on creating more opportunities for the next generation by helping open up the world of computer science to young people and those from underrepresented groups.

“From a young age, I’ve always wanted to give back to my community ways to navigate through life based on my experience, so that they don’t have to feel like they don’t have anyone to rely on,” Michelyn said.

Set to earn her Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science this month and her master’s from UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) in 2024, Michelyn has dreamed of being part of the technology industry since taking her first computer science courses during high school in New Hampshire. Her mother, though, saw a tech-focused future for her daughter even earlier — “When I was 10, my mom told me ‘Michelyn, you’re going to be a computer engineer…’ We had those big boxy computers and my mom would want me to help her send an email out, and I’d be her assistant with everything,” she said with a grin.

A guest speaker in Michelyn’s second high school computer science class who had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency’s cybersecurity division further opened her eyes, this time to all the exciting possibilities in defending the virtual world from malevolent forces.

“I loved everything,” she said. “I just wanted to learn more about cybersecurity because it’s an ongoing thing, it’s ever-changing. It’s such a broad field — there’s so many levels to it that you can go into, and you’re never maxing your skills. You always have something to develop.”

When in the midst of her college search, UNC Charlotte immediately stood out thanks to the school’s reputation as a leader in cybersecurity, as recognized by the National Security Agency’s decision to name the University an inaugural National Center of Academic and Research Excellence over two decades ago. She also loved that she’d be able to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees within five years, and was enamored with the beautiful campus and the level of diversity she witnessed when visiting with family — “We fell in love,” Michelyn said, so much so that her parents soon moved from New Hampshire to Raleigh to be closer to their daughter’s newfound home.

In addition to being accepted as an early-entry master’s student, Michelyn was able to fund her Charlotte education through the support of the Stephen Phillips Memorial Scholarship Fund and the UNCF. She also applied for and ultimately joined the University’s Learning Communities program, which allowed her to live on campus with other first year students looking for a tight-knit, collaborative, and supportive atmosphere in which to begin their college careers. Through this program, she was paired with a fellow CCI student as a roommate and quickly bonded with her other fellow Learning Community cohort members as they supported each other through their first year as college students.

During her time at Charlotte, Michelyn has been a proud member of the University’s Women in Cybersecurity and Girls Who Code chapters, as well as the 49th Security Division cybersecurity club and the Organization for African Students (OAS). She’s also a TA for the college’s introductory computer science course where students learn how to code in the popular Python programming language.

This semester, Michelyn was part of a group of CCI students to travel to Dallas, TX for the annual Tapia Conference, the premier conference to acknowledge, promote, and celebrate diversity in computing named after Richard Tapia, the pioneering Hispanic computational and applied mathematics professor at Rice University. “It opened my eyes to what I can accomplish,” Michelyn said. “I was aiming toward just getting my master’s, but now the idea of going for my Ph.D. is something I’m thinking about.”

While she’s weighing her options as to if and when she’ll pursue her doctorate degree, there are a few things Michelyn is currently certain will be in her current 10-year plan. Those include finishing her master’s studies at Charlotte; starting her career in cybersecurity; becoming an entrepreneur in the home renovation space; using her earnings from those endeavors to support (or even start) nonprofit organizations working to broaden access to computer science and STEM education in elementary schools; and continuing to build up and support other women, Black and underrepresented minorities in computer science, just as she’s been supported through her time so far in CCI.

“Being first-generation, and the first girl in my family to go to college, I had to figure out a lot of things on my own without someone telling me or helping me,” Michelyn said. “I want to be able to create and figure out ways that I can help students not feel like they’re by themselves, that there is help out there.”