How One Nonprofit Makes Coding & Computer Science Accessible to Low Income Students
Code Nation is a Visit.org partner nonprofit organization that was founded in 2012 to bring coding and professional skills to students from under-resourced high schools. Starting in New York City with programs in four schools, there are now almost 90 programs in NYC, Chicago, and the Bay Area, serving nearly 1,500 students nationwide.
We spoke with a Code Nation staff member named Lia Tisseverasinghe, and a former Code Nation student named Rashad to discuss the impact that this organization has made on the community, and how corporate teams can get involved.
Who does your organization serve and how do you determine where to put your focus?
Lia: We work with schools where a minimum of 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. These are students who typically don’t have access to computer science education or who wouldn’t otherwise have networks of professionals in the industry.
When we first started out in 2012, reports were coming out that by 2040 there was going to be a huge gap in the number of workers who were qualified to work in the tech industry. So, we put our students in the pipeline to start fulfilling these roles that would be available to them in the future. Through this, we are also able to help change the demographics of the industry predominantly white males to a tech force that is actually representative of the city’s population that these companies are working in. Students self-select into our programs.
We’re realizing as we move forward that it’s not just about the jobs, but that coding is going to be as important as learning math and writing in the future. It’s an essential skill for students to succeed in any career — it doesn’t just have to be a tech career. For example, I’ve been hearing from a lot of people in the tech industry that they’re all starting to use Python. They’re not coders and many of them didn’t learn coding in high school or college. But to automate a lot of their processes they’re having to learn this coding language. So we’re trying to give our students a leg up by learning these essential skills early on.
What types of things do students who go through the Code Nation program go on to do?
Lia: Many of our students are in software engineering and web development roles.But we also have some students who decided when they were in high school that they wanted to become doctors — and after taking our program they’re now doing biomedical technologies to merge their interests.
Almost 70% of the students who come through two years of our programs pursue a career in STEM or Computer Science education, whereas historically only 8% of the populations we serve would do so. We see the students using networks they built while they were with us to find jobs or get advice about their careers.
How can volunteers get involved?
Our second year program is run at company partner locations. The class runs once a week and it’s taught by a team of 4 volunteers from that company at the company’s offices. We really appreciate companies allowing our students to come in as it takes them out of the classroom, puts them in a more professional environment and lets them envision themselves as professional software developers
We also have one-off events like our Hackathon, where companies can sponsor a Hackathon team and send employees. Our Hackathon is an all day event where we bring our second year students in for a whole day of coding around a certain theme. Last year our theme was Hack the Impact – teams of students created websites and apps that centered around climate change and the environment.. We’re continuously inspired by the climate movement that has been taking place with our youth and we wanted our students to be inspired to explore how they can use technology to further engage others to come together to create awareness and make a difference.. Students come away from the Hackathons with projects that they can then add to their portfolio.
There is also a professional development day in the fall for our students, so volunteers can come and help them with resume writing, mock interviews,and speak on a career panel.
What are the other benefits of these volunteers and corporate partnerships?
Lia: One of the most important aspects of our program is giving mentorships and industry connections to students. As our students grow in their careers, and as they start looking for jobs after college they can reach out to these connections to help find ways for them to enter into the workforce. We all know that to get your foot in the door is about your connections.
We’re not necessarily looking to partner with only tech companies. Some of our most influential partners who have hosted our students for field trips are non-tech companies. Their tech team can talk about what they do and how working for this company has allowed them to merge their interests. For all our corporate partners who allow their volunteers to take that time it reflects their recognition of the importance of diversifying their tech talent pipeline. We also find that for our volunteers, this experience has made them better public speakers, they’re more comfortable giving presentations at work, and having managed a group of 30 high school students, it feels a little bit easier to take on these leadership positions at work as well.
Rashad Landrum is a 20-year-old graduate of Code Nation. He is currently studying to get his Associates in computer science at Queensborough Community College.
How did you get involved with Code Nation?
Rashad: In 11th grade, Code Nation came to my school. I was excited because I liked the challenge of coding and that they could open other doors for me in the future. I was able to meet a lot more people outside of the school and meet new friends and potential job opportunities and I felt more and more confident in my skills. There are some students from Code Nation who I still keep in close contact with today, most of them became my best friends.
Tell us about the Hackathon events you participated in.
Rashad: Hackathon is basically a coding competition. It’s intense but fun at the same time. The one that interested me the most was at Google and the theme was Style. My team and I created this program where you basically paint graffiti all over the walls using Google Street View and we got second place. It was a really good moment because it allowed me to lead a project and learn how it is studying different coding languages. We also had the mentors supporting us, showing us which resource to use. Each step of the way they were helping us build a project which we presented at the end.
What were some of the most beneficial things for you in being part of the program?
Rashad: Definitely the mentorship and the workplace experiences we would have. My experience was mostly in the classroom setting, so we had a lot of time with the mentors and a very close relationship with them over time. Down the line they became possible references for college applications or job opportunities. Staying in constant connection with them helped me gain confidence in my skill set, and further my career as a web developer.
For my program,we went on field trips to the mentors’ offices and company and see where they work. It gave us a broader view of how tech can be used in different industries whether it’s sports or retail. My Fellowship class was at Etsy, so we learned about tech at Etsy, like what they use for managing clients or keeping track of orders. Getting that initial exposure outside of the classroom really helped me broaden my eyes for what tech was used for rather than me sitting at home just programming something.
Every Thursday they would have Eatsys — where we would sit together at a table and eat and talk. It was really nice and it let me get to know my coworkers outside of the workplace. Culture like that helped me develop my network even better because we weren’t just at our computers anymore we were talking face to face, you get to see what types of shows you like, basically got to know them on a more personal level not just a work level.
The network aspect was a huge part of what Code Nation has benefited me with, because I have a lot of people I can talk to who can also give me opportunities that I might have not known.
Why should someone consider becoming a Code Nation mentor? What makes a great mentor?
Rashad: If they want to impact students lives they should definitely join. Over the long term they’ll be helping a student learn and grow and become a better person. Whether the students get a job in tech or not, these skills do carry over.
What makes a good mentor would be someone who’s very attentive, someone who spends their time talking to students individually seeing how they feel about the program, and helping them out if they’re struggling with the code or the curriculum. Also someone who has their best interest in students, sees where you are now and who you can be. Without most of the mentors I had in Code Nation, I wouldn’t be a web developer. They gave me the confidence to actually go for the jobs I want to go for.
Tell us about where you are now, after Code Nation.
Rashad: Currently, I am working for my school, Queensborough Community College. I am mostly updating content management system which updates the pages for schools, whether it’s events or financial aid or different types of sites. So I help update or create new pages for them that students will actually see. I’m doing very impactful work.
I plan on getting my Bachelors, and then I plan on studying game development, afterwards. I want to be a game designer. Later down the line, after I work for a game company, I want to start my own business in games.