Giving Bright Youth the Gift of Opportunity

by Jacob Martinez, Founder and Executive Director, Digital NEST | February 21, 2017

Committed to bringing tech to underserved student populations, Digital NEST founder Jacob Martinez @jacobotech has identified ways to break down the barriers keeping local students from the technology they need and deserve, while fulfilling the unmet needs of Watsonville’s small businesses and entrepreneurs looking for a capable local workforce.

Recently one of the first youth members of Digital NEST, Martín Vargas Vega, told me something that brought me to tears. Martín was describing how he felt amid the throng of applicants vying for a spot in a coveted college program.

He said, "It was the first time in my life that I’ve felt privileged."

Martín and four of his peers at the NEST had just returned from interviewing for the highly competitive CSin3 accelerated Computer Science degree program at Hartnell College and California State University, Monterey Bay. These hopeful youth (three males, two females) would have to wait 24 hours before learning whether they, among scores of applicants, would land one of only 30 spots in the program.

All five applicants cited their recent participation in a Hackathon for Game Development as a motivating factor in their decision to apply for the CSin3 program. To celebrate CSEd Week in December 2016, Digital Nest hosted two CSEd Week Hackathons in Salinas and Watsonville, California. These events, funded by Infosys Foundation USA, benefited a mostly Latino rural population:

  • 150 attendees: youth participants, volunteers, staff
  • 87.5% of youth participants were Latino
  • Volunteers (mostly college-aged) were 74% Latino, 17% Asian/East Indian
  • 68% of adult "guests" (family and event staff) were Latino
  • At the Salinas Hackathon, familial guests predominantly spoke Spanish

In the weeks leading up to the interviews, Martín, Betsy, Luis, Francisco, and Mariana excitedly filled out their applications, had staff review their personal statements, write recommendation letters, and help them prepare via a mock interview panel for the questions and scenarios they’d face. All were nervous.

"I've only had one interview in my life," Luis told us. "That was for a job at Carl's Jr."

Digital NEST

The day came.

One by one, these students articulated their career goals, shared examples of NEST projects in which they had participated, and asked profoundly thoughtful questions of the interview panelists.

Betsy asked, "How will your program support me as a woman in tech?" Her question cut to the heart of our work at the NEST: to be inclusive of all youth, and to promote diversity and parity in the tech industry.

Martín told the panel about his experience managing clients and projects through our youth-led tech consultancy, bizzNEST. He spoke of his desire to continue mentoring his peers while pursuing his own career in tech, and his vision that NEST alumni in tech careers can be the bridge linking NEST youth to the tech companies so greatly lacking in diversity. He talked about the confidence he gained through the NEST. Martín told me that in that intense, pressure-filled moment, he felt almost guilty having had the support, preparation, and advantages of his Digital NEST community.

As our applicants shared their aspirations and experiences, some of the panelists were moved to tears.

When the interviews were over, Martín said, "We all were high-fiving, and talking about the interview questions and our answers. We had each other! I looked around at the other kids who didn’t have that, and I felt bad for them. We five had one powerful thing in common – the NEST."

Now for the best part: all five were accepted into the program.

In just three years they will have Bachelor’s degrees in computer science. They’ll receive specialized mentoring and research opportunities, and serve summer internships in the local tech industry. Importantly, they will be supported by scholarships along the way.

Digital NEST is more than coding classes, free tech access, a cool environment. Digital NEST is technology workforce development for a community of motivated, deeply committed and empowered future leaders. These students are growing every day in skills, confidence, and capability, and we are so fortunate to be walking beside them on their pathways to success.