Dr. Elva Johnson Jones, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), is one remarkably humble and accomplished woman. Her contributions to WSSU are well known on campus and she even has a building named after her. What our Forsyth County community may not know is how far and how hard she has pushed for students, both male and female, to succeed in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), not just computer science. She finds joy in helping students find their potential, especially students who struggle to acknowledge their own academic abilities. Dr. Jones has dedicated her life to improving access to STEM education and her efforts prove that “One woman can do a lot!”
Raised on a tobacco farm in Louisburg, North Carolina, the future Dr. Jones thrived in a supportive family where college was an expectation for all four of Sanford and Bettie Johnson’s children, with the first harvest of every year’s crop used to pay tuition. She was educated in small elementary and high schools and spent her lunch time learning about math and science from Ollie Burrell, the Slide Rule Maestro! Her early teachers exposed their students to science fairs and educational experiences, often paying for these experiences out of their own pockets. She saw from an early age that one caring teacher could change a life. Dr. Jones followed in the footsteps of her older sister and attended WSSU, describing her sisters as the two best elementary school teachers ever and her brother as a dynamic high school teacher! In 1970, Dr. Jones graduated from WSSU, but had learned to write computer programs while an undergraduate working in the WSSU computing center. Her journey as a teacher began while a computer programmer at WSSU, teaching students to code during her lunchtime. She continued to work at WSSU while obtaining a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and then earned another master’s degree in operations research and a PhD in industrial and systems engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU). She was the first African American to achieve a PhD at NCSU in her field and was typically the only female in a class full of engineering majors. She accomplished these academic feats while raising a son and living in Raleigh, away from her husband, for almost three years to finish her doctoral degree. She credits two other African American PhD students, also raising children, for support and babysitting co-ops. What one woman can do is even better with other women to help and support her!
And instead of taking a job offer at NCSU upon graduation she returned to WSSU, where she taught and later became the chair of the mathematics and computer science department. She later founded the computer science department, one of the first computer science departments at an HBCU. She built the curriculum, taught classes, and led the effort to achieve ABET accreditation for both BS programs in computer science and information technology. She also led the development of the MS program in computer science and information technology. After many awards, years of community service, and decades of mentoring, Dr. Jones credits the love of teaching and helping students for “sticking around” at WSSU.
With this front-row view of our education system, Dr. Jones is concerned that there still exists the dire need to increase STEM education across the board for African Americans. More mentors are needed to introduce diverse students to possibilities outside of their local world. Female mentors are especially important to model careers in STEM for young women and to help them find their voice and tap into potential they did not even know they had. The department Dr. Jones leads at WSSU has six female professors, which is far more females than most computer science departments. They have developed students who have gone on to gain doctoral degrees and who can continue this tradition of encouraging young men and women to excel in a field that impacts the lives of all of us in so many ways. For Dr. Elva Jones “what one woman can do” is truly remarkable.