A capstone class project for a team of School of Information Studies (iSchool) students, working with an iSchool alumna at the Onondaga Free Library, has initiated a Girls Who Code chapter and an introduction to tech careers and coding skills for 11 Syracuse girls.

Classmates Kahssia Hills, Sydney Paul and Malaika Howard, all seniors, partnered on the project for Professor of Practice Marcene Sonneborn’s class. They worked with Alyssa Newton, G’13, who is the assistant library director and young adult services librarian at the Onondaga Free Library. The iSchool students raised $700, funds that are permitting the library to move ahead with plans to launch a local chapter of the national program, Girls Who Code.

The after-school club meets on Fridays for 10 weeks and the funds raised are allowing the library to purchase class materials, add a volunteer facilitator, host a family night/skills showcase and celebration, and supply coding textbooks so the young coders can continue their learning. The Onondaga Free Library’s section of Girls Who Code is the first public library in Onondaga County to offer a formal national chapter of the organization, according to Newton.

“It feels amazing to know that we are helping middle-school-aged girls get involved with information technology,” says Hills. “I can’t wait to hear how successful this program is and witness its return for years to come. I’m helping to inspire girls who may not have had any idea about technology as career. Knowing that I’m making a real difference outside of my studies at Syracuse feels amazing,” she adds.

A Formal Curriculum

Newton, a graduate of the iSchool’s M.S. in Library and Information Science program, echoes that sentiment. “The Girls Who Code national program has a curriculum, and it’s all online. I’m not a coder myself, so it’s all there for me. What I love is that there are lessons online that girls can take to do things like create an app or build a web site. We’ll work through those for a few weeks,” she relates. After that, the girls choose a problem facing their community and determine how coding can be used to address the issue, applying their newly-learned skills, Newton says. “My other favorite aspect is that, each week, Girls Who Code provides portfolios and videos of women in the coding field so the girls can see professionals in the real world. It’s a really amazing national program,” she adds.

Kahssia, Sydney and Malaika raised the money by creating a Facebook event page and sharing it with friends and family, raising almost $600 in 30 days. The trio also partnered with area restaurants Chipotle and Tully’s. The dining spots publicized the fundraiser, and then donated a portion of patrons’ purchases on specific nights to raise about $100 more.

Good Lessons

Kahssia became interested in the Girls Who Code organization through volunteering at the iSchool’s It Girls Overnight Retreat. The Information Management and Technology major plans a career in tech, beginning as a technical analyst with hopes that in five years she can step into a team leader role. Recently, she’s been exploring employers, looking for opportunities that have not only good job roles, but also a good cultural fit to offer.  

The capstone experience created greater awareness of how big the gender gap is in the technology field, Kahssia explains. “I knew there was a gap between women and men, and after researching more about Girls who Code, this is actually a great initiative to pursue because the gap is very wide in some careers. Being not only a woman in technology but a woman of color in technology, I’m experiencing these things firsthand,” she adds.  

Consequently, she’s been researching the websites and social media of potential employers to assess their culture and diversity levels. “Doing this makes me pay attention to how diverse those future organizations will be, and I’m trying to see if I’ll be a good fit at a potential company. I also research their women-to-men ratio just to see if they are aiming to narrow the gender gap or if they are not supportive of that initiative,” she adds.

Great Support

There was a great deal of support for her as a woman and as a non-traditional student at Syracuse University and the iSchool, Kahssia emphasizes.

She has been studying part-time for the past nine years since graduating high school, first trying nursing courses, “but it was clear it wasn’t what I should be doing.” Next came engineering classes at Onondaga Community College, but Kahssia couldn’t fit them into her full-time workweek as a business analyst at National Grid, in addition to parenting son Jayce, now 6.

The availability of online, evening and summer courses at Syracuse and the tech courses and flexible scheduling at the iSchool have put that college degree within reach, however. “Whoever is responsible for scheduling courses is doing a really great job of making them available to people who might not be able to be on campus during typical hours,” Kahssia adds.  

Now, the young woman, who as a girl, “always was interested in taking things apart and putting them back together,” looks to obtain her bachelor’s degree this May. “I’m finally, finally close to the end,” she says with pride.