When Mekedes Dejenie first discovered computer science in high school, she knew immediately it was the career for her. But when she walked into her first college-level computer science course a few months later, Mekedes says she quickly began to feel like an imposter.
“In computer science and tech, there’s just not that many students of color, especially girls of color,” says Mekedes, who lives with her family at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus. “It’s also really competitive. It made me feel like I didn’t belong.”
“I want to make sure they see that there are other young women of color doing what they want to do.” ~Mekedes Dejenie, Sand Point Housing resident & UW computer science student
Fortunately, Mekedes already knew a woman in tech: Stephanie Hippo, one of several Google employees who’ve been tutoring students at Sand Point over the last eight years. Stephanie had helped Mekedes with homework for a couple of years, but they’d never talked much about Stephanie’s job. When Mekedes told her about her new calling, they got to work right away (read our blog post At Sand Point, volunteer tutors help ignite students’ passions).
“Stephanie meant a lot to me because I could go to her with any questions I had, anything I needed,” Mekedes says. “I could leverage our relationship to build my technical skills and deepen my knowledge to prepare me. She was there for me.”
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Today, Mekedes is one semester away from earning her degree in computer science and has spent the past summer working full-time as an intern at Microsoft’s Redmond campus. She’s now a mentor herself, helping younger girls of color imagine themselves working in tech.
“I want to make sure they see that there are other young women of color doing what they want to do,” she says.
Incredible things happen when kids discover a passion
Mekedes was in fourth grade when she moved with her mother and older brother into an apartment on Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus, which provides housing and onsite support services for families and individuals who have experienced homelessness. Mekedes says her mother had to work hard to provide for her kids on her own and always stressed the value of education: “She always told us how important education was – that knowledge is power, and how it was the key to success – which has always been one of my motivations in achieving a higher education.”
“It’s invaluable for the kids to have a mentorship relationship with someone who’s in the field they’re interested in, and who can provide the advice and connections they might not otherwise have if they’re the first in their family to pursue a college education.” ~Oliver Alexander-Adams, Family and Children’s Program Manager at Sand Point
Mekedes worked hard in school and always knew she wanted to go to college, but she says she hadn’t actually thought much about tech or computer science until her junior year of high school, when a friend suggested she check out an event hosted by Girls Who Code. The experience was life changing: Mekedes found herself enthralled by the coding she found behind games and websites, and the idea that a simple script could be turned into a program.
“It was exciting and fun, and I felt welcome and included in the program. I didn’t know there was such an intriguing subject like computer science out there,” she says. “From that moment on, I have been always eager to find opportunities to learn more about computer science and do programming projects. I knew I wanted to have a career in it.”
Stephanie was almost as thrilled as Mekedes.
“I was super excited when she said she was going to do Girls Who Code,” Stephanie says. “I thought she would be great at it and I was secretly hoping she would love it. I was really happy when she did.”
Mekedes is just one of the dozens of students at Sand Point who have discovered a passion for tech and computer science over the last decade, thanks in part to tutors like Stephanie and programs like Geeking Out Kids of Color. In fact, when Mekedes graduated from high school in 2019, she was one of three graduates at Sand Point who went on to pursue degrees in STEM fields. (Read our blog posts GOKiC unlocks kids of color creativity through tech access and ‘Put the important things first’.)
“It’s been really great to see, and it’s a direct result of having the Google tutors at Sand Point,” says Oliver Alexander-Adams, the Family and Children’s Program Manager at Sand Point. “It’s invaluable for the kids to have a mentorship relationship with someone who’s in the field they’re interested in, and who can provide the advice and connections they might not otherwise have if they’re the first in their family to pursue a college education.”
A partner in pursuing a dream
Mekedes threw herself wholeheartedly into her new passion. She began to attend weekly Girls Who Code meetings on the UW campus, which led to an internship at Adobe. There, she learned new coding languages and worked with other interns to build an online tool for discovering new books. While still in high school, she started taking college-level computer science courses.
Mekedes is someone who doesn’t let any opportunity pass her by, so with Stephanie’s help she went after a series of internships and mentorship programs. Together, they prepared for interviews, talked through the application process, came up with networking strategies, and practiced coding exercises. Stephanie gave her a referral at Google and they talked about what Mekedes would do if she got offers from multiple internships – which is exactly what happened.
“Stephanie was my greatest support system throughout my education and college journey,” Mekedes says. “I feel extremely grateful to have her in my life.”
Mekedes’ hard work has resulted in many successes as she pursues her dreams, but there has been some rejection and disappointment along the way as well, and Stephanie was there for her then too.
“I told her how many jobs I was rejected from before I got to Google, and how everybody takes a different path to their career,” Stephanie says. “It was a new experience for her because she’s used to being successful at absolutely anything she tries.”
“I was very comfortable with her,” Mekedes says. “I wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable and make mistakes in front of Stephanie.”
In 2019, Mekedes was accepted to the University of Washington. She and her older brother are the first in their family to go to college.
Mentorship: an investment with endless returns
Mekedes was still in high school when she started teaching other kids about coding and computer science. She began at North Seattle College, where she worked to introduce younger kids to coding and get them excited about computer science.
In college, she joined the Microsoft Ambassador program, which empowers young people to teach others in their communities about technology. She became a fellow with Rewriting the Code and started mentoring a high school student.
“I wanted to build a safe space and community for minorities who have an interest or passion in tech, to be empowered to explore what the computer science and the tech industry has to offer and learn how to prepare to be successful in obtaining a career in tech.” ~Mekedes
Her goal, Mekedes says, is to show girls of color the potential of computer science much earlier in their lives, so they have more time to build the mentoring relationships and experience they need to prepare for a career in tech.
“A lot of students like me, we discover computer science later,” she says. “When they start earlier, they can really figure out whether computer science is right for them. I want to inspire other kids like me, who are passionate about it but feel intimidated.”
In 2020, Mekedes and two other young women founded Collective Youth, a program within GOKiC that empowers young people of color to work together through a social justice lens to pursue internships and careers in tech. The program combines project-based skill building with mentorships and mutual support, all with a focus on anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-homophobia.
“I wanted to build a safe space and community for minorities who have an interest or passion in tech to be empowered to explore what the computer science and tech industry has to offer – and learn how to prepare to be successful in obtaining a career in tech,” she says.
Mekedes and Stephanie still check in now and again, but Mekedes needs a lot less support these days.
“She’s doing so great on her own – and that’s always been the goal,” she says. “Most of the time what I hear from her now is happy updates.”