How Children Of Farm Workers Became Tech Professionals

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

An unlikely class of college graduates will walk the stage this coming week. They've gone through an accelerated computer science program that launched three years ago. It had a goal of training the children at California's agricultural Salinas Valley for careers in nearby Silicon Valley. But as Krista Almanzan of member station KAZU reports, some are finding their dream jobs a bit closer to home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Monse Hernandez.

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KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: The students walking across the stage at this celebration luncheon might be one of the most demographic-defying classes of computer science graduates year.

UNDIENTIFIED MAN: Devon Drasconi.

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ALMANZAN: In a field dominated by white and Asian men, this class is more than 80 percent Latino and nearly 50 percent women.

UNDIENTIFIED MAN: Leticia Sanchez.

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ALMANZAN: They're soon-to-be graduates from an intensive, three-year bachelor's degree program now called CSin3. It's a joint venture between Hartnell Community College and Cal State Monterey Bay.

UNDIENTIFIED MAN: Arturo Lopez.

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ALMANZAN: As the students take their seats at tables with orchid centerpieces, Teresa Matsui walks to the podium. She's the daughter of Salinas Valley orchid farmer Andy Matsui, who had the initial idea for the program and then paid for it by giving every student a full-ride scholarship.

TERESA MATSUI: You're the first cohort of the first program of this kind anywhere in this country or anywhere else we can think of.

ALMANZAN: The Matsuis wanted to help families similar to those who helped their orchid business grow. Many of the students in this cohort are the children of farm workers or immigrants themselves. The hope was to train them for jobs at Silicon Valley tech giants like Apple, Uber and Salesforce, and some have accepted jobs at those big-name companies. But since the program launched three years ago, a new opportunity has emerged to do high-tech work here in the growing field of agricultural technology.

In a heavy machinery workshop at the community college, Jose Diaz and Monse Hernandez are connecting a small box with some wires to a John Deere tractor.

JOSE DIAZ: We connected it to the starter.

ALMANZAN: They both spent their summer interning at Cisco in Silicon Valley, but later took a second internship at local ag (ph) tech startup HeavyConnect. They create software to help farmers streamline administrative tasks. The students are demonstrating a program they built that unlocks a tractor's ignition only after the driver completes a series of safety checks.

MONSE HERNANDEZ: And that's an indication that the tractor is unlocked right now.

I'm only doing this project to help the owners, the farmers themselves, but also figure out ways to help the employees because of all the hard work that they go through, all the long hours in the sun.

ALMANZAN: While Monse Hernandez is still weighing her post-graduation options, Jose Diaz has accepted a job with HeavyConnect.

DIAZ: Over at Silicon Valley, I feel I would be another worker maintaining the company. But with HeavyConnect, it's going to make big change. And that's what I want to do - help the community.

PATRICK ZELAYA: It was just luck that there's this talent mill of students that are proving themselves to be technical rock stars by completing a four-year degree in three years in the same town that we're starting this business.

ALMANZAN: HeavyConnect co-founder Patrick Zelaya has been so impressed with the CSin3 students that he held off filling full-time positions until graduation. He says it's an added benefit that they bring both computer science skills and knowledge of the ag industry. CSin3 co-director Joe Welch says some of the students came to the program from rural parts of the Salinas Valley, where they hadn't been introduced to computer science in high school.

JOE WELCH: Absent the program, they wouldn't have known about computer science. And absent the program, they wouldn't know how successful they could be if they just worked and worked and worked.

ALMANZAN: In the Cal State system, only about 28 percent of students transferring from a community college finish on time. In the CSin3 program it's 69 percent, and almost all the others will finish within the next year.

WELCH: We're seeing the embodiment of grit.

ALMANZAN: And that grit is proving inspirational to others. Some younger family members are already a part of the next cohorts already underway. For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan in the Salinas Valley.

 

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