“This looks like a really great program. I think you should go,” my mother said. Even though she insisted that my summer vacation plans were in my hands, all of our conversations led back to the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program. After hearing about this computer science program from a friend, my mother kept insisting that I apply. My feelings of animosity towards this program grew each time my mom brought it up.
“I told you: I don’t want to go! I am not interested in computer science,” I would reply firmly. But eventually, after some coaxing and a small bribe, my mother finally convinced me to apply.
There is a stark gender discrepancy in the field of computer science. According to the Observer, only 28% of students who earn a computer science degree are women. Furthermore, only 25% of computing jobs are held by women. Girls Who Code hopes to change these statistics. This program aims to immerse high school girls into the field of Computer Science and remind them that their capabilities are not defined or limited by their gender.
I was hesitant to be the odd one out for the first time in my life.
When I was applying to the Summer Immersion Program, I was surprised to discover that the application did not require a report card, school GPA or even references. Instead, each applicant was asked to write a paragraph on either leadership, sisterhood or bravery. I was also shocked to see that this program is free! Not only did the program provide the computers to work with, but they also provided daily lunch and snacks with accommodations to dietary restrictions such as kosher meals. In addition, Girls Who Code provides a stipend for those who need money for transportation. Need I say more?
Part of my reservations towards attending this program was that it would be my first time being the only religious Jew there. In past years, I have attended exclusively Jewish schools and camps. I was hesitant to be the odd one out for the first time in my life. However, after the program, I was so grateful to have had this experience from the religious perspective. Not only were the staff and students of the program accepting of my religious background, but they also made sure to go the extra mile, so I would feel welcomed. While the other girls ate food from the cafeteria, the Girls Who Code staff imported my very own lunch from a Kosher restaurant in the city. Through my daily, specialized lunch orders, the girls understood that I was Jewish. After asking what “kosher” was (and being shocked to discover that I did not just eat kosher salt all day), I explained that I kept kosher because I was Jewish. The girls were so sweet and often responded with: “That’s so cool!” This then led to numerous questions about Judaism in general, for example, the girl who thought I only ate kosher salt asked: “what does keeping kosher entail?”
As the “registered Jew on campus,” I enjoyed teaching my friends and teachers a little bit about Judaism. I even taught them how to find the kosher symbol on the food packaging. The symbol which they once thought was a copyright symbol gone askew, now has a new meaning to them.
As my friends and teachers were learning more about the Jewish religion, I learned more about what it is like to be Jewish in a non-Jewish environment. For one, I learned that I was never an afterthought. When my teachers went to buy cupcakes for a girl’s birthday, I was ready to either sit back ogling those cupcakes with jealousy or to receive a kosher alternative. However, when the Teacher’s Assistants (TAs) came to my table, they whispered to me that they were kosher. They could have given everyone the non-kosher cupcakes and handed me a kosher cookie, and I would have been fine with that, but the fact that they wanted me to feel included, even in our cupcake excursions, meant a lot to me.
When we were not learning how to code, we were on a trip organized by Girls Who Code. For our first trip, one of my TAs emailed the company we were visiting that I keep kosher. When it came time for lunch on our trip, the company brought out Subway Sandwiches. When I asked one of the employees where the kosher lunch was, she said:
“There are Subway Sandwiches over there that just have vegetables.” That would be great if I were a vegetarian, but since Subway is not certified as kosher, I was left to sipping my water. My TA upset that this company would not buy me my own lunch, decided to do it herself. She walked ten blocks to buy me that kosher meal. When we got back from the company, my TAs were complaining about how awful the trip was.
“To top it off, they didn’t even get Hannah, whom we all love very much, her well deserved kosher lunch!” I felt very loved that day.
Throughout the program, I was nervous to say any religious blessings in front of my friends, thinking it might make them uncomfortable. So, any time I needed to say any food-related blessings, I would try to cover my mouth while pretending to scratch my nose. There was one time though, where I was noticed. After my friend called my name, I held up my hand to show her that I could not talk at the moment. My face became redder with each passing second. After finishing, I explained that I was saying a blessing. “Oh! I am so sorry that I interrupted you,” my friend replied. After that, I realized I had no reason to be embarrassed about expressing my religiosity openly.
Going into this program, I was nervous that I would not make any friends because we were all so different, but underneath those differences, we were all just high school girls freaking out about college and the SATs. We often bonded over the similar school experiences and stress we shared. We quickly became best friends, playing weekly games of “Mafia” and “Seven Up” After forging these close friendships, it was difficult to say goodbye. I will admit, I had to stifle some tears on the last day. After walking into this program with no friends, I walked away with 19.
So, did I enjoy learning to code? After putting up such a fight with my mother, I discovered that computer science is not so bad after all. Not only did I learn how to code, but I also learned about the different career options in computer science. As one of the Girls Who Code speakers put it:
“Computer science jobs usually combine coding with a ‘flavor’ of another field.” There are computer jobs with a flavor in finance, a flavor in art, and even a flavor in biology.
I took away many lessons from this program. One: don’t ‘knock it til you’ve tried it’. Two, I should be proud of my Jewish background. Three, it is important to befriend people different from myself. And finally, and most importantly, I learned that my mother is always right.
Chani Shulman is a junior at Manhattan High School for Girls. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.