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Coding program seeks to open tech career doors for immigrant girls

Eita Nanda arrived in the United States five years ago as a refugee from Burma with no knowledge of American culture.

In a matter of weeks, the 18-year-old will start college.

So she knows the challenges of adjusting to the differences between her homeland and America in the classroom. 

"There were a lot of changes when I first moved here, especially having to move from class to class in school, instead of the teachers coming into your class to teach," she said. "And some things were pronounced differently here, like the letter 'z.' "

A two-week program at SUNY Buffalo State aims to help new immigrants navigate a foreign culture and learn skills they'll need to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math. Nanda and 29 other immigrant teenage girls are participating in the program. 

The AT&T Coding Your Future computer-coding program, from July 30 to Aug. 10, seeks to empower immigrant teen girls from limited educational backgrounds and provide them the skills to follow a STEM-related career pathway, said Cherie Messore, executive director of WNY Stem Hub.

The program, funded by AT&T, is a collaborative effort by AT&T, WNY STEM Hub, Journey’s End Refugee Services and others.

“There is a long-standing barrier for women to exceed in many of these STEM fields ... particularly girls who are from countries where education wasn’t encouraged,” Messore said. “And this program is giving girls this opportunity now, and letting them know it's completely in their realms and within their reach to build a career for themselves.”

Bina Dahal, 17, recalled the culture shocks she experienced when she arrived in the United States nine years ago from Nepal, such as a different relationship with teachers.

"Teachers are so nice here, and everyone is so friendly," Dahal said. "Teachers in Nepal hit you if you don't know the subject or if they are frustrated."

She recalled a teacher who pulled a lock of her hair.

"It was traumatic," she said.

Eita Nanda, 18, talks to her classmate Bina Dahal, 17. (Shuran Huang/Buffalo News)

Coding is quickly becoming the new literacy and the driver of growing industries. A lot of the growth in the domestic and global economy will come from STEM-related jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Department of Labor.

But a gender gap has emerged in STEM education and career paths. Only 18 percent of those pursuing degrees in computer science are women and just 29 percent of Western New York's STEM jobs are held by women, said Kevin Hanna, the regional director of external affairs at AT&T.

The AT&T program aims to close that gender discrepancy by not only giving opportunities to young women, but to those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

“Our focus is on our future workforce,” Hanna said. “We need more diversity, and not just gender but cultural diversity.”

The 27 program participants are from all over the world, including the Congo, Bhutan and Burma.

Journey’s End Refugee Services, a refugee resettlement agency, helped recruit the participants through the Buffalo Public Schools Jumpstart Program, a summer integration program for newly arrived refugees, and outreach to families enrolled in their own programs, said Jeff Ogilvie, the agency's deputy director.

Journey’s End has also hired professional interpreters for cultural sensitivity purposes and to help with language barriers during the first part of the day, when the girls will learn basic computer skills and rudimentary coding, Ogilvie said.

The first part of the day includes instructions related to computers, with the students learning how to use Microsoft programs, such as Word and PowerPoint, and basic operations they need to be successful in school. They will also learn to use App Lab, a program used for app development.

The second part of the day includes the "WNY STEM Café,” featuring female guest speakers, who immigrated to the U.S. They'll share their experiences when they first moved here.  

“These speakers will be from all different professions ... so girls can start seeing themselves through these other women’s eyes,” said Messore of WNY Stem Hub.

The rest of the day focuses on life-skill classes, including talks about presentational skills, digital literacy and financial literacy. It addresses how to earn and manage money in a new economy.

“So it’s really a program helping them develop as individuals and giving them the career incentive and advice to look at a career in technology,” she said.

Jeff Ogilvie, deputy director of Journey's End Refugee Services in Buffalo, talks to the students. (Shuran Huang/Buffalo News)

At the end of the two weeks, the students will develop a website, with a section of the website devoted to sharing their own stories about their homelands and their journey to the U.S. and Western New York.

“Storytelling is something that is universal across all cultures, so it’s a way to bring a common thread through the class,” she said. “And the website will be a repository of these stories that the girls can look back on and share with others.”

Some of those in the program recalled their memories immigrating to the U.S.

Nanda, who will start at Canisius College next month, said that the United States gave her educational opportunities she would not have had in her homeland.

“I love learning in general and I like the idea of going to college and having more opportunities and choices,” she said.

Dahal said she barely knew how to speak English when she arrived here nine years ago.  

“When I first came here, I was so confused because I didn’t know the language or the cultures,” she said. “I used to put my head down on the desk during breaks because in Nepal we took naps like that, but everyone thought I was crying.”

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