Out Of The Fields And Into Computer Science Classes

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About an hour south of Silicon Valley is a place known as the Salad Bowl of the World. In the largely Hispanic Salinas Valley, young adults are more likely to imagine a future in agriculture than high tech. but now a new program is trying to change that. The goal is to have children of farm workers earn computer science degrees. From member station KAZU, Krista Almanzan reports.

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: Twenty-five-year-old Leticia Sanchez grabs her keys to head out grocery shopping with her mother.

LETICIA SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

ALMANZAN: This is the kind of routine chore the two never got to experience together until recently. That's because when Leticia was two years old, her mom was busy working in Salinas fields to earn money to support the family. So, she sent Leticia to Mexico to be raised by her grandparents. Even now, Leticia's mom, Alicia Leon Rios, chokes up thinking about that difficult decision.

ALICIA LEON RIOS: (Through Translator) Yes, I think it was worth it, because she was able to choose another path.

ALMANZAN: That different path is going to college. Leticia is part of the inaugural class of a three-year intensive bachelor's degree program called Computer Science and Information Technology, or CSIT-in-3. It's jointly run by nearby California State University Monterey Bay and Hartnell Community College.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, everyone, this is CCS 1.

ALMANZAN: In a dimly lit classroom, the glow of computer screens lights up the faces of these freshmen. This computer science class doesn't look like many you'd find across the nation - most of the students here are Hispanic and about a third are women.

SATHYA NARAYANAN: Most of the professionals in computer science are men, Asian or Caucasian men.

ALMANZAN: Sathya Narayanan is co-director of CSIT-in-3. The program targets students traditionally underrepresented in Computer Science, and then removes many of the obstacles that can keep them from graduating on time, or at all. First, unlike the normal college experience where students select their schedule, Narayanan says these students don't have to worry about logistics.

NARAYANAN: All of that is completely planned for them. So, every time in the beginning of the semester they are going to be told what classes you are going to be in. You focus on your academics. You focus on studying.

ALMANZAN: Cost is often another obstacle. So, by splitting classes between the community college and a four-year school, the price tag of the entire degree is kept at just over $12,000. It's still too high for many of these students, but most have received full-ride scholarships. Without that help, 18-year-old Mateo Sixtos would have to continue working in the fields while going to school, and that would make finishing in three years unlikely.

MATEO SIXTOS: Agriculture is a hard thing. I mean, it's 10 hours every day under the sun, and it's very difficult 'cause your back is hurting all day.

ALMANZAN: It's that hard work ethic that program organizers hope will make these students succeed and stand out. Joe Welch the other co-director of CSIT-in-3. He says to stay in the program students must maintain a B average.

JOE WELCH: It's not enough that the students graduate. That's not what we are looking for. It's not a success if they graduate. It's a success if they graduate and Google is standing at the doors.

ALMANZAN: And that's where program organizers are already facing their own challenge. Welch says in trying to secure summer internships, they're finding many of the brand name Silicon Valley tech companies are used to dealing with brand name schools.

WELCH: Frankly, they're so comfortable they are not reaching outside that student stream.

ALMANZAN: Many of the CSIT-in-3 students are from historically disadvantaged backgrounds and first-generation college students. Welch says he doesn't want them to get a handout, just for Silicon Valley to give them a fair shake.

WELCH: So, you've said you want to give them this opportunity - we have them. So, we're really asking them to let us meet them in an outreach effort, in an engagement effort, that they've espoused in many national platforms.

ALMANZAN: Working at Google is just one thing Leticia Sanchez hopes to do with her degree. She also talks about developing software to help fieldworkers like her mom learn English. Now a mother herself, Leticia knows whatever happens, her family is on a better path.

SANCHEZ: It will probably, like, change my life, and also for my mom 'cause one another things I want to do is, like, take out my mom from the fields, just stay in the home, take care of my daughter.

ALMANZAN: If all goes as planned, Leticia and her classmates will graduate with bachelor's degrees from Cal State Monterey Bay in 2016. For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan.

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