Alumna’s Gift Encourages Women, BIPOC Students to Major in Computer Science

Giving: Sarah Luebke Sproehnle ’00 has established a faculty scholar award at Grinnell College.
Jeremy Shapiro

Sarah Luebke SproehnleSarah Luebke Sproehnle ’00 was initially intimidated by the whole concept of computer science.

When she was a first-year student at Grinnell, Sproehnle’s adviser, Professor Henry Walker, encouraged her to try a computer science class. Her computer knowledge was basically nonexistent at the time.

“I didn’t even know how to type all that well,” Sproehnle recalls. “I took the class anyway, and we had a lot of fun. But I was still intimidated. Some of my classmates had fathers who worked at IBM or they themselves had put together computers. Nonetheless, Dr. Walker and [Professor of Computer Science] Sam Rebelsky encouraged me to take a few more classes. I got inspired that first year. I am sure I wouldn’t have a computer science degree if not for Grinnell.

“I had a friend who knew computers,” Sproehnle adds. “Eventually I had him help me buy all the parts online to put one together. I needed to know how these things worked. When I built my first computer and it powered on, I was elated.”

Sproehnle went on to have tremendous success working in training, system functions, and customer success for startup tech companies. Along the way, she lamented the lack of women and people of color in the industry. She wondered if the intimidation factor she experienced decades earlier was still a barrier.

“When I became a manager within the software industry, I couldn’t find women to hire,” she says. “I would be able to find women for administrative positions or finance, but as far as computer science positions, it was few and far between.” Sproehnle wants to help change that by encouraging more women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) individuals to go into the computer science field.

Sproehnle made a $500,000 gift earlier this year to establish the Luebke-Sproehnle Faculty Scholar in Computer Science. The gift will provide support for a faculty member in the computer science department and for programs that benefit the department and its students, with preference to efforts that encourage and support women, members of the BIPOC community, or individuals with other identities that have been historically underrepresented in computer science.

It’s been more than two decades since the last time a donor established a faculty scholar gift at Grinnell. Sproehnle is the first Grinnellian to set up a faculty scholar gift designated to a specific academic department.

“When I became a manager within the software industry, I couldn’t find women to hire. I would be able to find women for administrative positions or finance, but as far as computer science positions, it was few and far between.” — Sarah Sproehnle

She worked with Elaine Marzluff, Breid-McFarland Professor of Science, and interim dean of the College at the time, who suggested that the scholar award go to a tenure or tenure-track faculty member for three to five years before rotating to another professor. Beronda Montgomery, who took over as dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs in July, will administer the new fund.

“I’d like to thank Sarah for her generosity and foresight in addressing how Grinnell can strengthen our efforts to support women and BIPOC Grinnellians’ entrance into and success in the field of computer science,” Montgomery says. “While our computer science faculty and Center for Careers, Life, and Service partners work diligently to break misconceptions about the field, this faculty scholar award is a significant tool in recruiting and retaining diverse computer science faculty, who in turn could become important role models and mentors for current and future students.”

Sproehnle graduated from Grinnell in three years. She knew she didn’t want to be a programmer, so Rebelsky encouraged her to consider teaching. At age 21, she became a corporate trainer. In 2010, she joined Cloudera, a new data management company with few employees.

“They decided to take a chance on me to build out training and customer success,” she says. “That company ended up growing to over a thousand employees. It went public. I was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It was so amazing. Everything just snowballed from that first idea to go into teaching people.”

Now a Portland, Oregon, resident, Sproehnle returned to Grinnell in June for the first time in 22 years to attend Reunion. She has remained in touch with Rebelsky and his wife, Michelle, over the years. She still recalls babysitting for them as a student.

“They recognized that I sometimes needed family and supported me on a personal level,” Sproenhle says. “My dad [David Luebke] had a really serious heart issue while I was at Grinnell.” She made sure to include Luebke’s name in the faculty scholar title as a tribute to her father. “He supported me financially through college. I thought it was important to recognize that.”

Rebelsky recalls that Sproehnle was an enthusiastic and industrious student.

“It’s a joy to see our students do well in work and life,” Rebelsky says. “It was nice to see Sarah receive the responsibility she deserves at each place she’s gone and to see her grow as a person. I’m impressed with how thoughtful she is. And I’m glad that her experience at Grinnell inspired her to give back.”

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