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Tech Program Helps Put Latinos On A Path To Silicon Valley

CSIT-In-3 students Daniel Diaz (left) and Brian De Anda map out options for reducing the size of a mobile app their team is building.

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.

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.

"What you are taught at school is not enough," Diaz says, "especially in today's competitive society. I think you need to do some more outside learning."

So these students are working on other apps, doing hackathons and learning additional programming languages outside of class. They're doing it because there's a thought — perhaps a reality — that hangs over them: They're underdogs.

"Given the region [the program] is in, it's majorly farmworkers," says Elias Ramirez, who is also on the team. "So given that, you don't think that many bright students can come from here."

They're all part of the inaugural class of CSIT-In-3 (computer science and information technology in 3 years), an intensive, accelerated computer science degree program targeted at students from the agricultural Salinas Valley.

They're about halfway through the three-year program. 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'll ultimately earn their degree.

Pitching Diversity To Silicon Valley

"We're going to bring a population that's not fully represented in Silicon Valley right now," says Joe Welch, one of the program's co-founders.

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 fair 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.

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

So Welch and his co-founder have been pitching to Silicon Valley companies to become partners. The program will send its best students and the tech companies will give them internships.

It's proving a hard sell to companies that have longstanding relationships with top-tier schools, like nearby Stanford and UC Berkeley. They've made some inroads, though.

Serving A Wider Community

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.

About 10 students gather around Pat Patterson's table for Salesforce, a global cloud computing company.

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 for its potential to quickly get graduates into the workforce and diversify the industry.

"If your employees are almost a monoculture, they are going to be building products and taking into accounts the needs of that monoculture," Patterson says. "So by having more diversity in tech we can actually build better products that serve the need of the wider community."

And as students like 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. That hard work has inspired him.

"The idea that there might be someone better than me is what actually might keep me competitive," Ramirez says.

So far, the CSIT-In-3 students are getting interviews, and one of the 28 students has secured an internship with Apple.

Copyright 2015 KAZU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kazu.org/.

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