I often hear about opportunities for women in computer science to network or advance their technical skills, but find myself unable to attend because they’re in the Bay Area, 2500 miles away. I’ve had fantastic internship and research experiences as an undergraduate at UIUC, but always felt frustrated and restricted living in Kentucky prior to this. Many potential computer scientists are excluded from outreach events for similar reasons of inaccessibility in the form of geographical restraints.
Geographical diversity in technology is valuable due to the unique perspectives formed by different cultures and inclusivity that it fosters. However, I feel many communities located outside of Silicon Valley (or other tech hubs) are unable to engage in the tech industry because of hidden barriers many fail to understand or resolve. Because of my experience growing up in Kentucky, I advocate for more outreach opportunities to impact underserved areas rather than continue to reinforce affluent and educated communities. I don’t intend to discourage people from helping their own communities, but rather to think about effective strategies for underserved communities if presented with the opportunity to work with them. Rural Kentucky is what I write about because it’s what I know best, but I hope that the same thoughts can be applied to other regions suffering from location bias.
For many in rural Kentucky, it may be unusual for a girl to pursue technology, let alone for anybody to think of going to college; some communities look down on college because it’s not considered as masculine as physical labor. It makes a huge difference in opportunity to grow up lacking mentorship opportunities, as the lack of people in tech also means nobody to organize tech events of any kind. The first step to solving this issue is exposure to available opportunities. After-school or summer tech opportunities at an affordable cost would be a great start to teaching STEM earlier and in greater depth. Digital communities providing mentorship opportunities (like Rewriting the Code, where I’ve gotten great resume feedback and there are frequent job/scholarship posts!) are also invaluable for this reason, though the first step is telling people that they exist, where to find them, and why they should be interested. Everybody in theory has access to the internet from wherever they are, but not everybody knows of free computer science resources online or where to start with them.
Part of motivating students is showing that success is attainable and providing a long-term path, which often requires a mix of financial and academic resources. Of equal importance is making sure the message reaches parents or others of similarly significant influence. For many, family is all they’ve ever had, and they believe in keeping family together above all else. Even being further than half an hour away for college or work is a difficult thought, even if the geographical restriction of staying in remote areas can be incredibly limiting for tech career opportunities.
In terms of how this translates to outreach as a student, I’m a big fan of open source outreach programs offering free online resources, lesson plans and opportunities accessible anywhere with Internet. If you have a curriculum you’ve designed for an outreach program, consider uploading as much of it online as possible. Reaching out to remote communities might not always be possible, but there may be somebody out there who would appreciate having access to course materials and demos. As the cost of hardware drops and remote work/education opportunities increase, I hope these will help many communities overcome today’s geographical disparity.
Outreach is never a guarantee at providing others with success, but I view it as an attempt to provide everyone with equal opportunity to succeed. It is because of exposure and direction that I believe in giving back to communities which have neither, and that everybody should have equal education opportunity from which they have the choice to pursue what they want. Part of this is providing technical resources, and part of this also lies in providing financial support enabling people to take the first step they need for a successful tech career.
Daniela Zieba, RTC Fellow, Sophomore at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign