Tech Program Helps Put Latinos On A Path To Silicon Valley : Code Switch A unique group of college students from California's Salinas Valley — many the children of farmworkers and immigrants — is working toward careers in major tech companies.
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Tech Program Helps Put Latinos On A Path To Silicon Valley

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Tech Program Helps Put Latinos On A Path To Silicon Valley

Tech Program Helps Put Latinos On A Path To Silicon Valley

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It is only January, but some college kids are already focused on this summer, especially students who want jobs in the tech industry. That's true for a group of college students in California's Salinas Valley. Most of them are the children of farm workers or are immigrants themselves.

Krista Almanzan of member station KAZU first met the group of students about a year ago and caught up with them recently on campus.

DANIEL DIAZ: Oh, OK, so what you're saying is if they click it...

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: About an hour south of Silicon Valley, in a classroom at Hartnell Community College, Daniel Diaz and Brian De Anda stand at a whiteboard, mapping out ideas on how to reduce the size of a mobile app their team is building.

DIAZ: So if we do this, how much space are we going to knock out?

BRIAN DE ANDA: We don't know yet.

ALMANZAN: This isn't a class, and the app they're building - an informational guide for a drug rehab center - isn't even a school project. But this is what it takes to have a chance at an elite summer internship, says Daniel Diaz.

DIAZ: What you're taught at school is not enough, especially in today's competitive society. I think you need to do more outside learning.

ALMANZAN: So these students are working on other apps, doing hackathons and learning additional programming languages outside of class because there's a thought - perhaps a reality - that hangs over them. They're underdogs. Elias Ramirez is also on the team.

ELIAS RAMIREZ: Given the region it's in, it's majorly farmworkers. So given that, you don't think that many bright students can come from here.

ALMANZAN: They're all part of the inaugural class of CSIT-In-3, an intensive, accelerated computer science degree program targeted at students from the agricultural Salinas Valley. They are about halfway through the three-year program, where they've done much of their coursework at the community college, and will soon be doing the majority at Cal State Monterey Bay, where they will ultimately earn their degree. Joe Welch is one of the program's co-founders.

JOE WELCH: We're going to bring a population that's not fully representative in Silicon Valley right now.

ALMANZAN: Welch is referring to diversity numbers that some major tech companies released last year, showing that when it comes to U.S.-based tech workers, the number of Hispanics or blacks doesn't even come close to 5 percent. Women fare better, but still less than 20 percent. In the CSIT-In-3 program, 90 percent of the students are Latino and nearly half are women.

WELCH: If they don't do anything to change the hiring processes that they've historically done, they'll be very challenged to get those trend lines to change at all, whether for women or for underrepresented minorities.

ALMANZAN: So Welch and his co-founder have been pitching Silicon Valley companies this - become our partner, we'll send you our best students, you'll give them internships. It's proving a hard sell to companies that have long-standing relationships with top-tier schools, like nearby Stanford and UC Berkeley, but they've made some inroads.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's finish up and transition to our second group, which would be (unintelligible).

ALMANZAN: At a networking event in the ballroom of Cal State Monterey Bay, Welch watches as the students mingle with representatives from local companies and a few from Silicon Valley, including Google, Twitter and Salesforce.

WELCH: So next group, fire away.

ALMANZAN: About 10 students gather around Pat Patterson's table. He's with Salesforce. Patterson's interest in this program goes beyond this networking event. He also taught a course in the program this past semester. He says he's optimistic about CSIT-In-3 both for its potential to quickly get graduates into the workforce and diversify the industry.

PAT PATTERSON: If your employees are almost a monoculture, they're going to be building products and taking into account the needs of that monoculture. So by having more diversity in tech, we can actually build better products that better serve the needs of the wider community.

ALMANZAN: And as students like Elias Ramirez will tell you, they also bring grit. When his parents first came to the U.S. from Mexico, they worked in the fields before moving on to better jobs. And that hard work has inspired him.

RAMIREZ: The idea that there might be someone better than me is what actually might keep me competitive.

ALMANZAN: So far, the CSIT-In-3 students are getting interviews, and one of the 28 has secured an internship with Apple. For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan in Salinas, California.

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