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Launch Pad
Techie Youth boosts foster youth into computer careers
Jazmine Gibbs
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Techie Youth (TY) is a nonprofit that started in 2015 in New York City. It prepares youth aging out of foster care to get jobs in the field of technology. Any youth old enough to be employed who is in foster care or recently aged out is eligible. Students learn IT skills, including computer programming and web/mobile development (building web pages and mobile apps) using online tools.

The program is free, and each session lasts 12 weeks. Classes are once a week for three hours. The group started teaching two different courses in Midtown, but recently Catholic Charities, a large nonprofit that provides foster care services, has contracted with TY to teach a third course in the South Bronx.

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I joined Techie Youth in February 2016. I’m a sophomore in college, and my goal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in computer science and get a job in data science or IT. I thought Techie Youth could help me gain more hands-on computer skills.

Although I started during the second week of class, I was able to catch up with the lessons. Techie Youth’s director, Carl McCarthy, said they considered that foster youth might miss classes when they set up the program. “The curriculum is modular,” he said. “Nothing is so complicated that the student needs basics before he or she can learn more advanced stuff. This means that, if a student misses a class, they don’t really fall behind. They just complete all the modules when they can.”

The 12-week course covers the basics that will allow a graduate to get an entry-level job in the tech sector, including hands-on activities that replicate the things you’d do on the job.

Class was held in the Microsoft store in Midtown Manhattan, using donated computers. The classroom is high tech: The board is a huge interactive flat screen connected to a laptop. To our right is the rest of the store where the regular customers come in for Microsoft services. There were times when random shoppers would watch our class.

The Power of Stories

I asked Carl who came up with Techie Youth. He said he was one of the founding board members, but the impetus was IT business expert Eric Benari. “Eric was touched by stories,” Carl said. “He’s good friends with a foster care agency director and heard about how tough it is to age out. He saw an opportunity to give tangible benefits to people about to age out or just aged out.”

Eric started recruiting people to help. Carl, a lawyer, deals with employment regulations, “making sure kids are protected, background checks, making sure insurance covers everything, all real-world regulations and risk,” he said. The rest of the people on the board of directors are chief technical officers from tech startups. “We also have advisers from foster agencies, through which we recruit all our students,” Carl told me.

What We Learned

Estefano Riojas is one of the teachers at Techie Youth. He grew up in the Bronx and taught himself about computers at a public computer lab during the 1980s. He described the class I took in an interview: “From November to May they learned the hands-on stuff. They touched the computer, moved things around, connected and disconnected from the network, removed bad hardware, added and deleted files. These skills, basic systems stuff, would get the person through the door. They could identify every aspect of a computer system, they could see the size of a hard drive, how much RAM, how to navigate around the system.”

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I did feel like I understood the basics after the class. We learned a lot of different vocabulary and used online search engines to find out about different software and hardware. We also learned computer and internet protocols using codeacademy.com. For example, I learned about how to search for IP (Internet Protocol) addresses using Command Prompt. We learned different coding techniques in Command Prompt and JavaScript.

“You could get an entry-level IT help desk job with the skills you learn in the first 12 weeks,” Estefano said.

Since November, only 18 people since November have made it to all the classes. I missed the first class, so I am not in that 18. What students do next is the job-readiness class, which I just started.

Benefits

Techie Youth wants all its graduates to get jobs. The chief technical officers on the board have connections that can help with that. Estefano says, “We’re making sure those 18 people are up to speed and ready to work on an IT desk.”

Estefano says that he loves teaching foster youth. “The most rewarding thing to me is to see someone transform. We have one student—99% of people would say ‘he’s a thug,’ but when they see his command of IT, they can’t believe it. This man walks and
talks differently when he talks about technology.”

The reason these classes can be so empowering, Estefano says, is that students “are learning how to critically think. Technology is a byproduct of that. They learn how to look at a situation from 360 degrees, gather information, and figure out what tools you have and how to solve the problem. Through critical thinking, we train them to be computer professionals.” I agree—in addition to the problem-solving Estefano describes, I’m also learning about the kinds of technology jobs that are out there. (Since our interview, Estefano has moved on from TY.)

My Future

My classes at Techie Youth gave me a better understanding of the field. And besides the computer skills, TY teachers taught me about the soft skills needed to work in IT, like consideration, good communication, and patience. I am taking the job readiness session now, and they are teaching us how to use LinkedIn and how to look for a job on Craigslist. Plus we keep learning the computer stuff; last week we installed Windows 10 on our computers. Already I feel better equipped to obtain an entry-level job in technology. They also offer to connect us with clerical jobs or front desk help.

The volunteer speakers from the Microsoft store shared their stories about working in the store and in the tech field. This helped me get a better understanding of working in the field. Two presenters from the Microsoft store said they had no tech experience when they started and got training on the job, which gave me confidence.

They treat you with respect at Techie Youth; they don’t talk down to you or make you feel less of a person. That respect helps me learn the material.


Find out more about techie youth at techieyouth.org
To apply, go to: techieyouth.org/apply

(FCYU-2018-01-23)