“Champion of Change” in tech inclusion, Rebecca Garcia, in front of The White House on July 31, 2013. (Photo/Antoinette Rangel)

A “Champion of Change” teaches free computer coding to youth

Rebecca Garcia says she was hooked on computers and video games ever since her godfather gave her a hand-me-down computer in the third grade.

“I started playing PC strategy games filled with building cities, managing economies and maneuvering armies through imagined lands,” says Garcia. “The thrill of creating stuck with me as I taught myself basic web development in HTML & CSS.”

Now 22, Garcia is a co-founder of CoderDojo NYC, part of a global movement providing free coding classes to youth. For her volunteer efforts, she was one of 11 heroes named a “Champion of Change” for tech inclusion at The White House yesterday.

President Obama had noted in his 2013 State of the Union Address that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are crucial to America’s economic future, and that students with STEM skills will be a driving force towards making the United States competitive, creative, and innovative. The event celebrated Americans doing extraordinary things to expand technology opportunities for young learners—especially minorities, women and girls, and others from other communities historically under-served or underrepresented in tech fields.

 “I was very excited,” says Garcia about her experience at The White House. “It was a really great to be able to spend time with other people doing great things. The discussion was mostly about making sure technology and technology education is available to everybody — especially women.”

Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in New York City, where she says the teen pregnancy rate is high and there are very few role models, her older sister — who lived in Boston — saw her interest in computers and did something that changed her life. She paid for her tuition to iD Tech Camps at MIT in exchange for a summer’s worth of babysitting.

“That investment was a really big deal…Being surrounded by so many passionate people who shared similar interests blew my mind,” says Garcia, who is half Mexican, half Filipina. “I never thought there were others like me…I was introduced to the idea of technology as a fun and exciting career…”

Two years ago, it occurred to her that not all families could afford camps — like the one she went to — which cost about $1,000 u.s. per  week. So she decided to co-found CoderDojo in NYC, a non-profit which began in Ireland, but now has about 200 chapters in 22 countries. Web and coding professionals volunteer to give free coding classes to youth ages 7 to 17.

“I knew that I wanted to do something with technology and be able to help people,” says Garcia, who is still in the process of finishing her bachelors degree in business part-time. She got a job working full-time as a developer at DoSomething.org building websites to get more than a million youth to unite for social change, and now she devotes most of her time to CoderDojo through the support of the Hello World Foundation.

There, she teaches youth how to build websites, games, and apps.

“There’s a girl who came to our program in New York City who we call ‘Little Rebecca’ — she’s 9 years old and had never heard of computer science,” says Garcia. Later she said, ‘Is this something you can do for a living?’ She’s really interested in technology and science, and she already built her first Android game at 9 called  ‘Poke the Domo.’”

For Garcia, she says it fulfills her to expose youth to these careers they wouldn’t otherwise hear about so early on.

“You can use coding in media, graphic or web design, animation or film,” says Garcia. “Coding can be developed and taken with you everywhere…I thought it was something just for engineers, but you can do anything you want with it. It’s good to get that exposure early, because I never would’ve known. I actually decided to study business, because I already know coding.”

She says she’s still unsure what exactly her future has in store for her, but for now she couldn’t be happier.

“Teaching youth is something I enjoy doing every day,” says Garcia. “I’ve made my own position in the world, but I still have a lot to learn… this is definitely a step in the right direction.”

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