How Public School Fails Students of Color
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher. My mom tells the story of how I would sit all my teddy bears down, facing a whiteboard, and stand up there and teach them. I never considered another career, much less a career in STEM. I have always been bad at spatial stuff (building legos, drawing, etc.), so I never could imagine myself as someone who could create things. While I was in high school, my history class participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code. This was the first time I heard the term “coding,” and this experience made me realize that this is something I could be good at. That Hour of Code showed me that I don't have to be good with my hands to build cool things.
At this point in my life, I knew teachers didn't get paid well, so I figured I'd try this coding thing. Before I was able to write my first line of code, I was met with the first of many barriers people of color face when trying to get into technology. Trying to sign up for a CS class at my public high school was the first time I faced the stark reality that, at a structural level, it was more difficult for Black and Latino students attending public high schools to choose a career in CS.
I graduated from San Leandro High School, a mere 30 miles away from the heart of Silicon Valley. In a school of 2500+ students, most of whom were Black and Latino, my high school only had 60 seats for AP computer science when I was in 11th grade. Because there were more interested students than there were seats, these seats were assigned by lottery. Students who did not get chosen would have to wait until the next academic year to sign up again. If you were in 11th grade like I was, this was your last chance to get a computer science class on your transcript before applying to college. I did not get a seat, and this affected my ability to be competitive for college admissions as a declared CS major.
I learned that schools a few miles away, where the majority of students were white, had entire CS departments. Cities like Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Berkeley, and Fremont offer their students a wide range of CS courses. I remember wondering how I could be competitive for college when I was up against kids who had been coding for years. This led me down a rabbit hole of findings where I learned of the severe lack of diversity in tech and the call for more women and people of color in the field. I knew I wanted to learn to code, but now also wanted to help more people who looked like me to have access to quality computer science education.
I did end up getting accepted to a few universities with a computer science major, but I had no experience outside of that Hour of Code. I learned that even the most introductory computer science courses in college assumed some prior programming knowledge. I decided to give up my admissions to take a gap semester with a plan to learn how to code and prepare myself for the big leagues. As a first-generation student with parents who left their cushy lives behind in Colombia for me to achieve the American dream, I didn't have the money or time to fail college classes due to a lack of preparation. During my gap semester, I attended Telegraph Academy, a mini coding bootcamp explicitly made for people of color (shout out to Albrey and Scott!). I continued to study computer science, but since I had forfeited all my college acceptances, I had to start at a community college.
During my first year at Chabot College, I started applying my love for teaching and newfound coding skills to kids from the same background as me, hoping they might have an easier time than I did. I spent 1.5 years as the Technology Coordinator for The Boys and Girls Clubs of San Leandro and East Palo Alto, where I designed a STEM curriculum for K-12 students that includes robotics, website design, IoT, and makerspace classes. I wanted my students to be able to imagine themselves as engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and coders - something I had never done despite being an intelligent, middle-class child. This was the beginning of a beautiful journey in where I discovered my passion: teaching kids who look like me how to code and allowing them to get a slice of the tech pie.
In 2018 I founded what has now come to be known as STEMTank, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the number of Black and brown technologists and engineers. The organization was born out of a desire to serve my home community of Oakland and the East Bay, which also faces some of the most devastating effects of gentrification caused by technology companies and their employees. At first, I hosted free one-off workshops on topics like drones, the internet of things, and coding. After a few months, I wanted to measure my impact in a tangible way and knew that I had to build something substantial to achieve my mission of increasing the number of Black and brown technologists.
With the skills I'd learned while being at Boys & Girls Club, I designed an after-school program to expose students to the various careers that exist within STEM, teach them technical skills, and connect them with Black and brown people working in those industries. I emailed close to 50 after-school programs and community centers pitching them the idea, and asking them to borrow some of their space and materials. One response changed everything, and after an intense interview and vetting process, STEMTank became the provider of technology and entrepreneurship education at REACH Ashland Youth Center, a community center funded by Alameda County. Since then, STEMTank has served over 400 students in the Bay Area and has expanded to offer courses ranging from Intro to Coding to AP Computer Science Prep.
This endeavor has been nothing short of amazing. I've learned so much about technology, education, and the impact of technology on our young people. My journey has forced me to wear many hats- teacher, founder, hiring manager, mentor, and salesperson. Still, most importantly, it taught me what it means to be a leader within my organization and my greater community.
The Good News
Despite everything, I made it out to the other side to tell my story. On December 13th, 2021, I graduated from Cal State State East Bay with a B.S. in Computer Science. I couldn't have done it without the fantastic professors, mentors, and family that surrounded me with love and support throughout this journey. First, I worked as an engineer on the Checkout team at PayPal, and now I'm a developer advocate at The Graph. Si se pudo.
I wrote this article to share my personal experience, and my journey and to show a kid like me that they can do it, despite all the obstacles. I'm also hoping to highlight that to this day, students of color do not have the same access to adequate computer science education as their white counterparts. Please consider donating your time or money to organizations that are addressing this problem. Some Bay Area organizations I have worked with and recommend:
I create free content to help people learn how to code. Connect with me on all channels @camiinthisthang