In a Navajo Nation Town, Student Coders Step Up
Like a lot of teenagers, Amber Henderson, 16, wanted to go to New York City. Specifically, last spring, she wanted to attend a summer computer coding immersion program in New York for teen girls. But, also like a lot of teenagers, she couldn’t. Amber’s family was wary about sending her 2,000 miles away from her home in Shiprock, New Mexico, a small town named after a nearby rocky peak in the Navajo Nation’s northeastern corner.
For most students who are from rural areas and interested in computer science, that would be the end of the story. But Amber, a junior at Shiprock High School, got lucky. A few weeks after her New York dreams were dashed, Shiprock’s assistant principal, Jeff Sagor (New Mexico ’10), approached her with an opportunity: a summer web-development boot camp (the first of its kind targeted to American Indian kids that anyone here has heard about), to be hosted at her school.
“I can’t believe it just popped up where I needed it to be,” Amber says. “My mom was like, ‘That’s a sign.’”
The value of that ecosystem is more than just economic. A December assignment in Cooksey’s intro to computer science class had students building websites that addressed “a worldwide or community problem.’’ About 20 percent of the finished projects focused on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. Other students tackled domestic abuse, public school quality, animal rights. Veronica Holiday, a junior whose participation in coding club was reflected in her noticeably more refined sense of web design, built a site explaining depression to family and friends of those afflicted: “That they’re different, that it’s not just like being sad.”
Later in the day, during a lunch meeting of the coding club, Veronica, Amber, and their peers talked about the competing pressures they’ve felt to stay close to home or follow their talents to bigger cities. “A lot of times they”—teachers, tribal members, family—“tell us, ‘We need you here, you could help improve a lot of things here and make it a better place.’ But at the same time, you’re just like, ‘I want to go do other stuff,’” Amber says. “It makes you feel guilty for not…” She hangs on the thought for a second, and then Alan Taliman, a tall, soft-spoken junior, jumps in: “…not staying here. For leaving.”
But leaving is hardly a foregone conclusion for any of the coding club members. They love their culture fiercely, and thinking about the benefits their computer skills could bring to Shiprock excites them. Nashota Jim, a junior with slick, short hair, says she wants to build a site that would help collect donations—“blankets, scarves, anything that would help”—for reservation residents struggling through the winter without heat.
Veronica says she’s fielded some offensive questions when she’s left the reservation before (“Do you guys live in tepees?”), and wants to harness the internet to share information about modern Navajo life. “We’re just like you; we’re just connected to traditional beliefs.”
Alan, who’s independently taking C++ classes at nearby San Juan Community College this semester, would like to one day learn more about medical technology to improve standards of care at the local medical center.
There’s a spirit of defiance to the students, but it’s optimistic, not embittered. They say they often feel underestimated, and are eager to prove themselves. Alan says he gets the sense that many people “think that we’re still in the primitive age” on the Navajo Nation, that they “don’t have a lot of this stuff, like computers.” The Shiprock students want the world to know better, and they’ll help spread the word, one website at a time.
- Check out Cultivating Coders' Facebook and Twitter pages for updates, including co-founder Charles Ashley's Ted Talk, "Are you interested or committed?"
- Are you a high school teacher looking to bring computer science to your students? Read more about Teach For America’s Exploring Computer Science Fellowship.
- For updates on Teach For America’s Computer Science initiative follow @TFA_STEM on Twitter
About the Author
Tim Kennedy (Mississippi ’11) is the former editorial manager of One Day. He joined the magazine in 2013 after teaching English in Marianna, Arkansas.