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It’s a sunny Wednesday morning in July. It’s a comfortable 72 degrees. It’s the perfect day to be doing something—anything—outdoors. Yet in Room 315 at Northeastern Illinois University’s El Centro location, the students are happily munching on doughnuts and playing a quick game of “Donkey Kong.”
This is the third day of the Google Computer Science Summer Institute Extension (CSSI-Extension), an immersive three-week program in which 14 Northeastern students learn everything from the basics of HTML to creating their own apps. The goal of CSSI-Extension is to increase the number of women, underrepresented ethnic minority students, first-generation, and low-income college students in the field of computer science. Northeastern is the only school in the Midwest—and one of only nine in the United States—to offer Google’s CSSI-Extension program to incoming freshmen and transfer students. Sessions are run by a mix of instructors from Northeastern, the business community and from Google itself.
This program is a big deal, but the instructors keep the mood light. As songs from “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1” play in the background, Akkady Tchaba passes out laptops to each of the participants. Meanwhile Graciela Perera, who like Tchaba teaches in Northeastern’s Department of Computer Science, eases the students into the day with a physical exercise in which students share their favorite food as they perform a stretch.
“Veggie deep dish,” Adam Olszenski, a transfer student, says as he touches his toes.
As the stretching and conversation wind down, Perera recaps the first two days of the program and shares her pride that they’ve already learned the basics of HTML.
Perera helped bring Google’s program to Northeastern in collaboration with El Centro Director Maria Luna-Duarte.
“Northeastern is not really known as a premier computer science school yet,” Luna-Duarte says. “But we have a lot of students who are capable of learning and getting jobs in this field. Who knows—with programs like this, we could be national leaders in five years.”
The program is a mix of both in-depth technical training and soft-skills fundamentals. One soft-skills activity requires the participants to create life paths from their birth to the present. Perera leads by example and shares her story.
Perera was born in Venezuela and moved to the U.S. while in elementary school when her family relocated for her father’s job. She lived in New Orleans, then Canada, then back in Venezuela. She earned a Ph.D. in Florida and landed her first job in Ohio, but wanted to live in a big city. So, she found Northeastern and moved to Chicago. Perera participated in Google’s 2018 Faculty in Residence program. She immersed herself in Google’s engineering culture while providing Google with insights to advance their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“There’s a Googler coming to speak about career paths after lunch,” Perera, who likes to refer to Google employees as “Googlers,” tells the students. “Anyone know where he graduated from?”
After fielding three or four incorrect guesses, Perera shares that the Googler, Carlos Ortiz, is a graduate of Northeastern. “Who’s going to graduate from NEIU?” Perera asks the group. All the participants raise their hands.
As the group breaks for lunch, some participants eat quickly and visit other parts of the building to play games or chat with friends. Kathy Reyes and Hesam Sadeghian stay in the community room to talk.
Reyes is a transfer student from the City Colleges of Chicago. Sadeghian is an incoming freshman. Both are from immigrant families. In fact, about a third of this cohort consists of students born outside of the U.S.
Reyes was born in Mexico. Her family came to Chicago when she was 9. She transferred to Northeastern because she is a recipient of The Dream.US scholarship, which provides financial assistance to high-achieving scholars who have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) or TPS (Temporary Protected Status).
Reyes is planning to major in Computer Science. Her goal is to focus on human-computer interaction and combined design thinking.
“I didn’t get to take computer science classes in high school,” said Reyes, a graduate of Steinmetz College Prep. “As a woman of color, I want to empower other young adults to careers in STEM so girls don’t think they can’t do it.”
Sadeghian was born in Iran. His brother, a Northeastern alum, persuaded him to attend. Sadeghian is the first member of his family to pursue a computer science career.
“One of the parents of a student in my high school did a presentation on his job,” says Sadeghian, who attended Niles West High School. “He works in cyber security and showed us how he could see if anyone was accessing information they shouldn’t so he could stop it. It’s an interesting field.”
Sadeghian is also interested in culinary arts and is fascinated by the impact of technology used in meal preparation.
“I’ve been watching videos of robots that can prepare meals,” Sadeghian says. “It’s really cool.”
Ortiz, a customer engineer at Google who graduated from Northeastern in 1996, arrives after lunch. He presents a four-year plan that students can follow to help them secure a career in computer science.
“Don’t think about what you want to do in 10 years,” Ortiz says. “Think about the problems you want to solve and how you can solve them.”
Ortiz has worked in technology for 20 years. He believes that if students are dedicated to their studies, can be personable and can solve problems, they will have several job offers in their field within two months of graduating.
“The first couple of years I was at Northeastern, computer science was still part of the Math Department,” Ortiz said. “I remember the professors were really dedicated and really focused on the foundations of algorithms and data structures. Technology wasn’t exploding like it is today. Those foundations of computer science helped me to be very good at reverse engineering and adapting to new technology.”
“We know the value of technology and the positive impact it can make in the lives of these students and their families,” says Luna-Duarte, who was an undocumented college student and understands some of these students’ struggles firsthand. “We want them to get internships and we want them to succeed.”
Luna-Duarte hopes the Google program will develop into a pipeline that starts with students during their junior year of high school and leads to successful careers in computer science.
It’s only been three days, but the impact the program is making is undeniable.
“These students are so committed,” Perera says. “They’re here for nine hours a day. It’s beautiful out. They could be doing anything, but they’re here. By the second day they were able to have their own webpages up and they’re all collaborating.”
The program is also making a huge impression on the instructors.
“These students inspire me,” Perera says. “Their stories touch me. They make me feel like I belong. It’s important to me that they feel like they belong here, but they’re also making me feel like I belong here because of them.”