JOLIET – About a year ago, Andrea Herrera, 18, knew she had an interest in technology and wanted to apply it however she could.
So when Herrera volunteered one day at the Spanish Community Center in Joliet, she learned about Latina Girls Code, a program the center ran. She got involved in a summer immersion class, and she said she not only loved the challenge of mastering HTML and Python, but she also connected with other students like her.
“We would talk about how it’s weird that women or girls or people of color haven’t really been introduced from their childhood to this field,” Herrera said. “They don’t have a role model in this field.”
It was a welcome change to her experiences in technology classes at school. In her programming classes at Plainfield Central High School, she was routinely one of the few girls.
“I felt really unrepresented and discouraged almost,” she said.
According to a study by the National Science Foundation, women make up 18.2 percent of college students studying computer science. African-Americans and Latinos make up 4.8 percent of college students studying computer science.
Statistics such as those are why Latina Girls Code, which is based in Chicago, has spread to diverse communities such as Joliet to offer free technology education for girls ages 7 through 17. Stephanie Castillo, who runs Latina Girls Code at the Spanish Community Center, wants to provide an environment where her students feel welcome and where their specific experiences are shared and appreciated.
“It’s more than just a technological transformation for our communities that have been locked out of this resource,” Castillo said. “What we’re seeing is our students are facing unique experiences, unique circumstances.”
For instance, some of the young people Castillo and the Spanish Community Center work with are undocumented and apply for work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Castillo doubled as an immigration adviser at the center and could speak directly to what her undocumented students would be concerned about, such as how their status could affect their employment or education.
“They need a space where their identity is celebrated,” she said.
Of course, there also is a practical reason to be familiar with coding languages, as computers have become integral to the classroom and workplace. Latina Girls Code provides students such as Liliana Martinez, 17, who graduated from Joliet Central High School in the spring, with the opportunity not just to learn the skills, but also to pass them on as an instructor and mentor to younger girls.
She also feels it has helped her gain the confidence to lead a civic engagement program at the Spanish center and pursue a career in education starting in the fall, when she begins classes at Lewis University in Romeoville.
“I think everyone should learn this,” Martinez said, “because it opens doors to job opportunities.”
Herrera also has used her experience with Latina Girls Code as a catapult to her career. This summer, she is in New York City interning with engineers at the United Nations. She will attend Joliet Junior College in the fall with plans to major in computer science.
She admitted that a year ago, she did not have the confidence she does now, and Latina Girls Code has helped her fully realize her educational and professional path.
“I felt like I can do it,” Herrera said. “I don’t feel like the odd one out.”