Celebrating the Women of the SIGGRAPH Student Volunteers Program: A Retrospective

by | 15 March 2022 | Conferences, Industry Leaders, Students

Pictured from left to right: Shannon Tucker, Mk Haley, Jaime Radwan, and Lyn Bartram

Women’s History Month is a time to reflect and celebrate the achievements of millions of women around the world. For this interview, we caught up with four inspiring women who each served as chair of the SIGGRAPH Student Volunteers program for the 1993, 1997, 2002, and 2006 conferences, respectively. Read on to hear from Shannon Tucker (SIGGRAPH 2002 in San Antonio), Mk Haley (SIGGRAPH 1997 in Los Angeles), Jaime Radwan (SIGGRAPH 2006 in Boston), and Lyn Bartram (SIGGRAPH 1993 in Anaheim). Each shares what it meant to them to lead the program and how SIGGRAPH has since impacted their personal lives and professional careers.

SIGGRAPH: How would you describe the conference that took place the year you volunteered as chair of the Student Volunteers Program?

Lyn Bartram (LB):  In 1993, SIGGRAPH was one of most — if not the most — exciting combinations of researchers, practitioners, industry [professionals], and academics in the world. It brought together not just people from different roles in computer science, but also championed avenues and contributions for computer graphics across a plethora of disciplines. How exciting to have art, science, entertainment, and basic research all together! It was a heady experience, imbued with energy and a boundless delight and optimism in the potential of this exciting area.

Mk Haley (MH): SIGGRAPH 1997 was smack dab in the middle of the industry/SIGGRAPH heyday. It was very hard to get in-depth information on much of the technology our communities were interested in without coming in person to a conference. So, attendance was high, as was optimism in the future of computer graphics and interactive techniques. From the Los Angeles Times,Siggraph 97, the giant computer graphics conference and exhibition, turned out to be an even bigger hit than organizers expected. Final tallies put the total attendance for the six-day event at a record 48,700–more than 20% higher than the 40,000 visitors who had been expected at the Los Angeles Convention Center.”  To date, this is the highest attendance figure the conference has ever had.

A lot of breakthroughs were happening [in the industry] at the time — Netscape had been founded in 1994, internet access was becoming more and more accessible, and “Toy Story” had been released in 1995, proving a feature-length, computer-animated film could be profitable. Maya would be released early in 1998, making 3D modeling and animation tools much more accessible to a larger creative audience. This was also right around the time that carpal tunnel syndrome and other physical realities of long hours on computer terminals became a regular point of discussion in the industry. I am happy to say that I see far fewer braces and other indicators of physical stress now than we did in the mid to late ‘90s. We grew big, and we grew fast. Exhibitors were splashing out on lavish booths and receptions/parties, and there was a lot of optimism for jobs in the near-term future for our volunteers. Smithbucklin ran the Job Fair back then and it was hopping! Internships and entry-level jobs were just starting to become a thing, as so few students had access to the high-level of equipment and programming [that was] being used in the industry at the time. 

[Finally, when it came to Student Volunteers in ’97,] we worked with well over 700 student volunteers in support of the wide range of activities and sessions. With a crew that large, there needed to be some way to identify them at a glance for our guests any time they needed assistance or direction. So, the 1996 program chair, Hank Driskill, and I split the cost of those sassy red vests across our two years, and — boom — a uniform was born. The conference gave the student volunteer population a really great chance to talk to each other about programs and compare their work and equipment. [The year] 1997 was also the first year that the conference offered travel assistance to students. Up until that point, we were able to provide registration to all and housing to students who worked 35 or more hours over the six-day event (yep, used to be six days), but travel and meals were all on their own. I appreciate that the Conference Chair that year, Scott Owen, secured funding to allow a larger base of volunteers to attend.

Shannon Tucker (ST): SIGGRAPH 2002 was a special conference. It was the only time SIGGRAPH was hosted in San Antonio, Texas, and Ester Dyson was the first female keynote speaker. The Student Volunteers Program hosted a range of future SIGGRAPH leaders, including Jaime Radwan (2006 Student Volunteers Chair), Matylda Czarnecka (2008 Student Volunteers Chair), Mikki Rose (SIGGRAPH 2012 Student Volunteers Chair, SIGGRAPH 2019 Conference Chair), Gracie Arenas Strittmatter (SIGGRAPH 2013 Student Volunteers Chair), Corinne Price (SIGGRAPH 2019 Student Volunteers Chair), and many others. It also was particularly special for me since it was an opportunity for me to work with my former freshman college advisor and 2002 Art Gallery Chair Karen Sullivan. Karen introduced me to ACM SIGGRAPH and SIGGRAPH conferences. For me, SIGGRAPH has been and will always be about the people. Working with these and the many exceptional team leaders and student volunteers was a great highlight of my SIGGRAPH experience and my time in San Antonio.

Jaime Radwan (JR): 2006 was a very memorable year for so many reasons. Not only did it mark the return of SIGGRAPH to the East Coast, but it was the first time the conference returned to Boston since 1989, and its first time in the very new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC). And, boy, was that convention center big! I remember hearing a stat that the BCEC was longer than the Empire State Building is tall, and I can tell you it definitely felt that way. Especially when our walkie-talkies didn’t have the range to reach from the Student Volunteers office to the opposite end of the BCEC and we would have to run to deliver messages to our team leaders. But, perhaps my favorite part was the Teapot Exhibit, where real teapots, virtual teapots, and teapot-inspired images were on display. It was such an amazing exhibition and so fitting for SIGGRAPH and the city of Boston.

SIGGRAPH: What has the Student Volunteers Program meant to you personally and professionally?

LB: The student volunteers I worked with [in my] year were fired up and so eager to work with all the attendees. It was so exciting. In 1993, the student volunteer count was already around 250 and it was clear that there needed to be some organizational management and restructuring to make everything run smoothly. So, I introduced the role of “team leaders” and appointed some of the more experienced student volunteers (those who had participated previously) in the role. They then had the responsibility of managing areas and shifts. This made things run much more cleanly and allowed lots of localized decision making. I really have to say they made the year! I also brought in coverage of more competencies — we chose students who spoke a host of different languages, including American Sign Language. The opportunity to bring together and marshal this incredible team of people was really eye opening for me professionally, and a number of my former student volunteers are now colleagues whom I greatly value. This taught me how important and how powerful it is to let people who are excited and enthused and energetic have agency and options in what they are doing. This wasn’t herding cats, it was watching a passionate team give their all. I have relied on the lessons learned from this experience throughout an academic career that often involves bridging diversity to achieve strength.

MH: My first year as a volunteer — between my junior and senior year in school — was 1989 and the conference was in my hometown, Boston. Being a volunteer not only allowed me to participate with a free registration, but also to meet some friends who are, to this day, industry and personal besties! I took the train into the conference every day, and I remember watching the Electronic Theater late one night and at the same time wondering how late the trains ran home. As well as watching “Knick Knack” and knowing I wanted to do that. I met people from programs at SIGGRAPH that introduced me to graduate programs I could attend to continue my education, like the very next day! I went to Cal State LA in 1990 to continue my studies, and that program had several longtime SIGGRAPH volunteers involved in the Education and Art Gallery programs, so I was swept right up into even more opportunities to participate. I became editor of the Education Committee Newsletter, worked as the Technical Papers Committee admin when the chair was Jim Kajiya at Cal Tech, and co-ran SPACE, the Student Poster and Animation Competition. I was managing way more people and larger budgets as a grad student than any company would have allowed me to at that point, which was hugely valuable to me professionally. I am still dear friends with many of the folks I met at that conference in 1989, and those I’ve worked on committees with ever since. People think it’s weird that service on conference committees (SIGGRAPH and the Themed Entertainment Association) are fun for me, but come on … they are amazing groups of people doing groundbreaking work, nothing but fun!

ST: As a first-generation college student, participating in the Student Volunteers Program provided an opportunity to connect with a diverse community of students and professionals, expanding my personal and professional networks exponentially. At a time when there weren’t many women working in technology in my organization, the program was an opportunity to see the success of women in computer graphics and technology. My experiences as a team leader, office manager, and as the program chair provided important leadership development opportunities that shaped my professional identity and leadership approaches to team building, project management, and, most of all, working with people. It also highlighted the importance of communication and how it is important to a successful program and a person’s experience. I will never forget the team leader training hosted by Student Volunteers Chair Mk Haley in 1997 that focused on communication and attendee experiences. My takeaway message from it was: Even if you think your role is small and unimportant, your help and how you communicate can make a big impact on the experiences of others. It was a tremendous help in my time volunteering with SIGGRAPH, but is also something that has stayed with me throughout my career and is something I still apply every day. (Thanks, Mk!)

JR: I was introduced to the program in 1999 and I can easily say it changed the course of my life both personally and professionally. On the professional side, when I look back at how far I’ve come and all I’ve achieved in my career, I can trace the beginnings back to my time as a student volunteer. I spent eight years with the Student Volunteers Program, working my way up from student volunteer to team leader to subcommittee member and finally to program chair in 2006, plus another 12 years as an ACM SIGGRAPH volunteer in various programs, from communication chair to co-executive producer of the ACM SIGGRAPH SCOOP team. All along the way, I made new friends and new connections which lead to new opportunities. I can thank those experiences and that time volunteering for helping me to develop the skills and confidence I needed to be a strong leader, for inspiring me to get my Master’s degree, for introducing me to countless mentors and champions, and for opening doors to career opportunities that I previously would not have imagined. On the personal side, I made friends all around the globe that I am forever grateful for. Many of the people I’ve met along the way, even back to my first conference, are still my close friends today. We have traveled together, worked together, played together, and celebrated life’s milestones together. I wouldn’t trade these friendships for anything.

SIGGRAPH: Do you have any words for the female leaders of the future (in SIGGRAPH and beyond)?

LB: Words for female leaders of the future? We are never as good as we want to be but we are almost always better than we think we are. Don’t be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. The person who belittles is the weaker: don’t bother trying to convince them, just go around them to the goal.  We are stronger by enabling excellence, and richer for encouraging diversity.

MH: Stop calling us female leaders and just call us leaders. I have no interest in being remembered with an asterisk. You might also want to touch base with our marketing teams[, but] I don’t believe our attendance [ratio] of male/female attendees has gotten much better in the past 30 years. Why is that?

JR: Never underestimate yourself. Step out of your comfort zone and do things that scare you because it’s in those moments where you will grow the most. Always take that phone call, or have that conversation because you never know where it could lead or what opportunities could come from it. And, above all, be a mentor! Even if you believe you have nothing to give (trust me, you have a lot to give), mentoring others will not only teach you so much about yourself but it will help provide other young women just like you the opportunities and experiences that you have been so lucky to have.

ST: Use your leadership positions to help others. Be a mentor and coach to support others along the way, and continue to support and advocate for women and underrepresented groups. Leadership comes in many forms and it isn’t about titles. No matter where you are in your career, your experiences, mentorship, and support are valuable to others. You may sometimes feel like an imposter. Imposter syndrome is real and you might not be able to see your own contributions as valuable. They are! Mentoring and coaching others can help you see the remarkable person you are through the eyes of others.  

Interested in volunteering with SIGGRAPH? Learn more here. Plus, registration for the upcoming SIGGRAPH 2022 conference in Vancouver opens soon. Read more about the event.

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