Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering

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Ailsa Tirado: Code to Success

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From Inside USD -- Ailsa Tirado teaches C++, one of the most powerful and difficult computer languages, to the young girls of her Tijuana community. While many of us would expect only a professional computer programmer to take on this task, Tirado isn’t even a computer science major — her first coding experience came in her sophomore year Introduction to Computer Programming class.

“It was really hard,” Tirado said. “The first weeks were extremely difficult. But I got the hang of it. Two weeks into the course it just clicked, and I thought, ‘this is not rocket science and I did not need to wait until college to learn this.’”

The insight spurred her to start Code to Success, a summer program that makes coding simple and accessible to kids that are growing up in a world with an increasing demand for computer literacy. Unfortunately, the idea of spending a summer writing lines of computer jargon didn’t appeal much to her target audience, forcing her to employ a creative approach.

“I tried to structure it like a fun, attractive summer program that the kids will actually want to sign up for, because most of — I’d say, yeah, all of — the kids who are in it, weren’t initially attracted to it because of the coding. So I added other components, like an etiquette component to teach the girls manners and ‘girly’ things like how to walk in heels.”

While high heels and coding may not seem like an intuitive pair, Tirado ties them together for the larger, more profound lesson to pass on to her students.

“One of the essential components is, particularly, empowering girls,” she said. “As an engineering student, I sit in a classroom and there are not a lot of girls pursuing a career in the same field as I am, and sometimes it’s just because nobody tells them that they can. I want them to be empowered, and I want them to have that confidence to walk into that office for that interview, or just to walk into their computer programming classes when they’re in college, and have that confidence that, ‘I can do this.’”

Tirado, entering her junior year as an Industrial and Systems Engineering major, has tackled her goal with purpose, drawing on USD’s unique and abundant support for Changemaker students and their projects. She is mentored by Michael Lovette-Colyer, assistant vice president and director of USD’s University Ministry, who has helped Tirado make the program into the resounding success it has been.

The same girls who came to her with no coding knowledge at all are now able to look at major websites — such as Collegeboard.com, which is also used as part of Code to Success’ college preparation lessons — and code different aspects of the website from scratch.

“If it weren’t for … the Changemaker Summer Fellowship at USD and a group — a network — of people willing to support me, I don’t think I would’ve carried it out. I’m really grateful for this opportunity and the fellowship. It isn’t just financial support: it’s been the mentorship, the encouragement, the affirmation that’s really made it all possible.”

Tirado intends to take the program further, and praises other initiatives such as Code.org and She++ for helping to dispel the mystique of coding for a generation of girls who are in a position, if properly equipped, to go on and become Changemakers in their own way.

“Coding is intimidating and it is scary sometimes, but I want these girls to get rid of that fear,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of potential for Code to Success and for programs like this. It started in Tijuana, but … it doesn’t have to stay here.”

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