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New Degree Program Helps Salinas Valley Students Set Sights on Silicon Valley

Krista Almanzan

Although the Salinas Valley is only about a hour south of Silicon Valley, many high school students there don’t imagine a future in tech. But a new program is trying to change that by taking a different approach to earning a computer science degree. 

During this first week of school at Hartnell Community College in Salinas, students sitting behind computer screens in this Intro to Computer Science class look fresh, bright-eyed and ready for the new year. But aside from that, this class doesn’t look like most you’d find across the nation.  Computer science is a field dominated by Caucasian and Asian males.  In this class, most of the students are Hispanic and about a third are women, including 25-year-old Leticia Sanchez.  “I was born here in Salinas, California, but raised in Mexico by my grandparents,” said Sanchez.

As her grandparents raised her in Mexico, Leticia’s mother stayed here picking lettuce to support her family.  So when Leticia moved back with her own daughter, Emily, she also started working in the fields.  That’s where her mother offered some advice.  “If you want a better future for Emily, you have to go school, learn English, and be prepared,” said Sanchez.  That was four years ago.  Today, Leticia is on a path to that better future.  She is part of the inaugural class of the Computer Science and Information Technology program, as known as CSIT-in-3.  It’s a three year bachelor’s degree program jointly run by Hartnell and California State University Monterey Bay, KAZU’s parent institution.

The program targets students traditionally underrepresented in the field of Computer Science, and then removes many of the obstacles that can keep them from graduating on time, or at all.  “The way you do this is you minimize variability in the pathway,” said  CSUMB Professor and CSIT-in-3 Co-Director Sathya Narayanan.  “From when you come into the program to when you graduate, you are going to be completely supported, provided with all the information, and the guidance you need,” he added.  Unlike the traditional college experience where students select their schedule, for these students, classes and even study time have already been scheduled for the next three years, summers included.  “You focus on your academics. You focus on studying.  The logistics is kind of taken out of their responsibility,” said Narayanan.

Cost is often another obstacle.  So classes will be split between Hartnell and CSUMB.  This approach keeps the price tag of the entire degree at just over $12,000.  It’s a price still too high for many of these students, so 24 of the 32 have received $30,000 scholarships from Salinas Valley orchid farmer Andy Matsui.  The large scholarships will keep them from having to work as they pursue their degree.  “These students otherwise wouldn’t have this opportunity, but that doesn’t mean they’re not superstars,” said Joe Welch, Hartnell Professor and the other Co-Director of CSIT-in-3.  He says even with so many obstacles out of the way, it’s not an easy road ahead.  To stay in the program students must maintain a B average, and they have to be ready to compete with those graduating from the top computer science schools. “Two things I really want to enter your mind when you think about our program.  First of all, is our students will outwork anybody.  That’s the first part.  Second thing is, it’s not enough if the students graduate.  That’s not what we are looking for.  It’s a success if they graduate, and Google is standing at the door,” said Welch. 

And that’s where program organizers are already facing their own challenge. They’re trying to secure internships for the second summer in the program, but are finding that while many tech companies have said they want to hire underrepresented populations, they’re used to dealing with the big name schools.  “Frankly they’re so comfortable they are not reaching outside that student stream.  And what we are saying is a lot of our students are from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, and they haven’t been given this opportunity.  So you’ve said you want to give them this opportunity, so we have them,” said Welch.

Those students include Leticia Sanchez who aims to be the first one in her family to graduate from college.   And 18-year-old Mateo Sixtos who has for years spent weekends and summers picking his berries to help his mother and four siblings.  “The oldest one after me he’s ten, and everyone is looking up to me.  I’m like the role model,” said Sixtos.  Then there’s 20-year-old Daniel Perez who is here thanks to having role models.  He credits his interest in computer science to his brother who already has a successful career, and the first computer his late father bought his family with money he saved working in the fields.  “Well before he passed away he saw three of his children graduate from college, and he has my promise that I’m going to finish too,” said Perez.  If all goes as planned, these students will graduate in 2016 with bachelors of science degrees from CSUMB. 

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.