Written By Jose Mendoza, CSU STEM VISTA 2015-16, San Jose State University Jan Pinson STEM Education Program
When I think of service, I think of the power of youth. Through service, I have discovered my passion for empowering youth to reach their full potential. My interactions with students in the classroom have made me reflect on my own experiences growing up. This connection has made me realize how lucky I was to have the opportunities that were given to me, especially in my educational journey. However, I also reflect on some of the challenges I’ve had to overcome, like struggling with reading, not liking math, and being an extremely quiet student. I see myself reflected in many of the students I’ve had the privilege to work with and know.
I demonstrate this passion for empowering youth as the Lead Coordinator of the Girls STEM Network (GSN) program at San Jose State University. In the past, this passion has been easy to show through direct service, but as a VISTA I have been challenged to express it indirectly. I’ve had to share my enthusiasm with service learning students in hopes that they, too, might believe in the power of young people. I thought working with elementary students was tough, but working with college-aged students has helped grow in new ways.
Throughout the Fall Semester, San Jose State students from the Communications 157
Service Learning course learned the importance of community service through their participation in the Girls STEM Network Program. Eighteen students dedicated 48 hours of community service at local middle schools. They worked closely with Joan Sirma (GSN Lead Instructor) and myself (CSU STEM VISTA). Service learning students were first assigned to do research on cybersecurity. The majority of students were Communication Studies majors and had no prior knowledge of computer science, and many had never heard the term “cybersecurity.” Understandably, they approached this task with some uncertainty and hesitation. They had difficulty understanding how cybersecurity outreach could be tied into community service or poverty alleviation. Some seized the opportunity from the very beginning while others remained reluctant. It was up to me to keep them engaged and excited about a topic I was still learning myself. I challenged the service learning students to think independently and to find how cybersecurity was relevant to their personal lives. At the same time, I had to be an effective leader and motivator.
I was used to working with K-8 students and knew how to connect with them, but here I had to shift my focus to motivating students many years older. I questioned whether all the time and effort I put into the service learning course would actually translate and be impactful for the community we were serving. Would the SJSU students find meaning in all of this? I needed to realize that I had to believe in a vision—that cybersecurity education can alleviate poverty—first before others would believe it. Similar to the children I had served before, the service learning students would feed off of my energy whether it was a feeling of belief or a feeling of doubt.
Through weekly discussions and site visits, service learning students were able to make a connection between cybersecurity education and inequity in the tech workforce. It became clear to them that we needed their support to create awareness and opportunities for the youth we were serving. It was evident through their commitment that they quickly realized the importance, as well as relevance, of cybersecurity. As non-STEM majors, they were able to make meaning for themselves out of this experience, though many had no background in cybersecurity. By creating awareness and exposing students early to STEM fields, it could possibly be the spark needed to lead a kid to pursue a career in the field.
Inside the classroom, SJSU service learning students served as role models and mentors. They were crucial in helping youth stay engaged and feel confident about the new topics or lessons. They modeled what it was like to learn something new and to have a positive attitude about it. The middle school students definitely enjoyed the extra attention and support. These kinds of connections make service learning students so essential to the work that we do.
Youth are so intrigued by college students inside their classroom and are more likely to be engaged because of that. Towards the end of the semester, SJSU students took the initiative to step out of their comfort zones and facilitate their own Cybersecurity lessons. At Campbell Middle School, Monroe Middle School, and Sylvandale Middle School, service learning students led their own lessons revolving around car hacking, computer hardware, catphishing, and computer viruses. These topics immediately caught the attention of students inside the classroom. The middle school students asked many questions about the projects and paid close attention to the presentations.
After these lessons, we knew it would be possible to incorporate these activities and lessons into a larger event. This led us to organizing and planning a Computer Science and Cybersecurity Awareness event. At the event, service learning students had the opportunity to showcase their research projects to local high school students. It was a celebration of their work and I was happy to see that they felt proud about their service. This semester I want to continue to share my passion for empowering youth. SJSU students have the ability to be the role models and mentors that can make all the difference. They can model what it is like to learn something new and difficult, like computer coding or cybersecurity concepts. I realize now that many of the college students also believed in the power of youth.