Strengthening STEM through work opportunities for Philly's youth
TechServ, a new citywide and soon-to-be statewide program, tackles the STEM and IT divide in urban centers by training "opportunity youth" to work at partner organizations in local communities.
Carlos Gonzalez, 22, knows what it’s like to have to get up and try to make it through the day, fighting through loss and despair. To keep going, even when your world has seemingly ended.
First it was the loss of his sister, who died at the age of 21 of a hospital-induced overdose when Gonzalez was just 13. Then his friend, who was “like a little brother,” was stabbed to death while living on the streets of North Philly just last summer.
Gonzalez also knows what it’s like to have the odds stacked against you. Born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, he was raised by his single mother in North Philadelphia from a young age. His father was mostly absent throughout his childhood, and Carlos’s teachers told his mother that he would always have learning difficulties due to his diagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
“I feel as though everyone deserves an opportunity, and I say that because I was one of those kids growing up where I didn’t have those opportunities,” said Gonzalez. “I stayed without a job. I fell off and thought about doing crazy things, doing stupid things, but I had to motivate myself to keep fighting, never give up.”
Those obstacles and painful losses are part of Gonzalez’s past, and they inform his present. But he says that he now recognizes that they don’t control his future, which he has begun to build by participating in a new program called TechServ, run by AmeriCorps and JEVS Human Services. The new initiative seeks to empower young people like Gonzalez, ages 17-24, to develop their capabilities as professionals while also contributing to closing the overall STEM and IT divide in many urban communities.
“Carlos exemplifies what TechServ is about,” said Alia Sutton-Bey, program manager for TechServ. “He has a keen sense of wanting to give back to his community and he’s committed to that.”
She noted the 85 percent retention rate for the first cohort of 20 scholars in the pilot phase of the program, which ran from January to July of this year — a figure which she said speaks to the wrap-around services that TechServ provides to youth participants to ensure that they are able to succeed.
After becoming involved with Powercorps PHL, another AmeriCorps initiative run in partnership with EducationWorks and the Philadelphia Youth Network, Gonzalez discovered the TechServ scholar program through a series of professional contacts that he had developed along the way. From there, he applied and was accepted to the pilot program, and requested specifically to work at a site that served the Latino community so that he could give back and use his skills as a bilingual speaker to better service the community as a whole.
Through the program, he along with other TechServ scholars learned everything from how to take apart computers and laptops and put them back together again, to teaching and professional development skills, to code-switching in the workplace. Gonzalez eagerly took it all in and threw himself into his work at the local chapter of LNESC — the educational arm of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) — at the Fishtown Rec Center.
“You can find somebody that has the education or the skills, but at the end of the day….you’re looking for someone who has heart and wants to show up every single day wanting to do the work that they’re doing every single day,” said Shane Weller, who, as the director of the LNESC site, worked directly with Carlos in the management and implementation of seven programs.
“That’s Carlos’s best quality - wanting to do the work and having heart,” said Weller.
Gonzalez said that he dealt with some challenges in some aspects of the job, including his role as a lead instructor for some sessions — he wasn’t exactly expecting to be able to easily connect with the group of 30 middle school girls in the site’s TechnoloChicas program, and at first it was a struggle. Some of the students threw things at him, or refused to listen to instructions as he taught them about coding and other STEM skills. Slowly but surely, he gained their trust and confidence. By the end of the class, Gonzalez said, they were crying as they said goodbye to him. He was more emotional than he thought he would be when he reflected on the work that they had accomplished in their time together and the “tight bond” that was formed.
Weller said that having someone, like Carlos, who is from the community that the organization seeks to serve is essential in strengthening the connection between instructors and students.
“I would say as a nonprofit it’s difficult to reach everybody, so having a program that reaches disconnected youth, trains them, provides them skills, and places them in organizations that will allow them to hone and further develop those skills is so important,” Weller said.
Sutton-Bey noted that the further success of the program, which will welcome a new cohort at the end of August, depends on the continued partnership and support offered by the community organizations and the efforts on the part of the program administrators to smooth out any of the “bumps and bruises” they encountered in the pilot phase. In the next phase, Sutton-Bey said that they plan to have five fellows located in Harrisburg, PA, with an additional five in Camden, NJ, and 10 in Philadelphia.
As for Gonzalez, he said he is looking towards his dreams with a vision that quite literally spans the globe. He hopes to get an associate degree in computer science from the Community College of Philadelphia, and then move on to a bachelor’s degree program at Temple University (also in computer science). While there, Gonzalez wants to study abroad at Temple’s campus in Japan, where he said he would be interested in learning about the culture, speaking the language, and discovering more about how technology is used in different countries and cultures around the world.
For now, though, he is excited to potentially have the opportunity to stay with TechServ as a “team lead,” which would enable him to be a mentor, providing guidance and support to the next group of TechServ scholars.
“I definitely want to come back because I want to challenge myself and embrace that role and mentorship,” said Gonzalez. “I want to be able to get comfortable [being] uncomfortable, be able to challenge myself and build responsibility. I know I can handle it and I know I can be a good mentor because I know what it’s like to go through things.”