Stories From CodeDay  ·  September 16, 2020

Amplifying Underrepresented Voices as a CodeDay Labs Mentor

CS, CodeDay Labs Beginner-Track Mentor

This is a guest post written by Caitlin Stanton, a CodeDay Labs beginner-track mentor from Cornell University

My first taste of the tech world was in high school through a required Introduction to Computer Science course. That entire semester I was bored and listless, not fully able to grasp the power of programming without concrete examples of applications in the real world. The closest I got to understanding how code could be implemented in the real world was building Fruit Ninja in Racket.

I don’t even need a single hand to count the number of people I know who are aware of the existence of, let alone regularly use, Racket.

In my opinion, people aren’t able to grasp what it’s like to have a career in tech or involved in tech without getting hands-on and building applications of their own. For me that came through the Girls Who Code (GWC) summer immersion program and dozens of hackathons. GWC taught me fundamental programming concepts alongside relatable example assignments, while hackathons pushed me into the world of rapid ideation and prototyping. 

Discrimination in Tech

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for underrepresented minorities in tech (womxn, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, people who fall into intersectional identities, etc.) to not have access to those kinds of opportunities. I’ve had the privilege to have quality education inside and outside of the classroom, and I’ve been trying to take steps within my own life to uplift other underrepresented minorities to provide them with that same kind of access and those same kinds of resources. That doesn’t simply mean giving them an iPad and a link to a YouTube tutorial, but additionally supporting them through building confidence, exposing them to diverse points of views (in the best of situations, this would include people they can relate to), being incredibly open to any and all kinds of questions, and many more encouraging teaching strategies.

That’s how I found myself as a mentor for two 100% womxn teams as part of the CodeDay Labs program.

Building a Virtual Community

Though both groups were working on different projects—Abigail, Jing, and Khushi each built their own  autonomous Arduino-based robot and Lilia, Sandy, and Sarah worked through the product cycle to develop Peridot, a React application for voter education—I wanted all six of them to learn from and interact with each other. A large part of internship programs is the social aspect, and I wanted this virtual summer to be no different.

I put all of us into a single Slackspace and after introductions all around, I set some ground rules:

Caitlin's rules for being part of her team. 1. no negativity, only growth. 2. No judgement, only acceptance. 3. Communication is key. 4. Keep an open mind. 5. Come to learn.

It’s quite easy in tech to find yourself thinking that you’ve fallen behind, that you’re not qualified to be here, that you’re asking stupid questions. This is impostor syndrome, and though it affects everyone, it’s more likely to negatively impact the growth and mental health of underrepresented minorities. By laying out a supportive, encouraging, and understanding foundation, I hoped that all of my mentees would feel comfortable coming not only to me for help but to each other.

And it worked! The individual channels for each project were always bumping with messages about successful/unsuccessful debugging and our twice-weekly syncs gave me in-depth insight into their daily work sessions. We even had mid-summer cross-team presentations for each team to learn what the other was doing.

Technical and Non-Technical Learning

As outlined in number five of my ground rules, I wanted my mentees to learn both for their projects and for professional/personal growth in general. I organized the summer into weekly sprints, providing them not only with tasks to accomplish (set up the IR sensors, find a voter registration API) but resources to gain foundational knowledge (introduction to circuits, introduction to UI/UX design). 

Personally, the why of developing a new feature or integrating a new sensor is much more important than the what and how of actually building it. 

Outside of “working” hours, I had ideas for what skills/discussions would be useful for them but I also wanted their opinion. Cue the Slack poll!

Poll asking students what initiatives they would like Caitlin to facilitate during the program such as mid-summer or end of summer cross-team presentations, intro to Slack workshop, presentation skills 101 workshop, intro to Git/Github workshop, and resume, cover letter, LinkedIn workshop. Most votes went towards Intro to Git.

By the end of the summer, I led workshops on Github, presentation skills, and professionalism (resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn). Each was recorded and uploaded, along with notes and resources for quick review. I made sure to incorporate time for Q&A and shared my own struggles during each, from having to search for the git add/commit/push commands every time I uploaded code to handing in identically-formatted resumes to a recruiter at the same time as my friend.

A Summer of Growth 

Much like I consider myself an ally in progress, I believe I’m a mentor in progress. Not every mentorship style will mesh with every mentee, and that’s totally fine. It’s important to listen to feedback and grow from it, and that’s what I did as a CodeDay Labs mentor. 

My syncs with each mentee were crucial tools to see how they were doing throughout the summer, as well as what I could be doing to support and uplift them. My Slack DMs were the perfect place to get an almost instantaneous response, whether it was to help debug a wonky servo or add someone to the Github repository, but I was always quick to note when I didn’t know the exact answer and needed to do some further research.

I absolutely loved hearing about them overcoming annoying bugs, seeing their progress during our sprint meetings and their video submissions, and watching them get excited about each individual accomplishment. They all came into the summer with different backgrounds, experience levels, and goals, so serving them each individually was difficult but rewarding.

And then I got messages like this to seal the deal, and really hammer home why I enjoy being a mentor.

Email image with text from a student thanking Caitlin for all her help making the program engaging and welcoming. The student also mentions that her professional workshops were very helpful and that they are excited to explore tech because of their experience.

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