Reflecting on My Experiences Teaching at Brown Youth Academy

Just this passing summer, I had the great pleasure of working and teaching at Brown Youth Academy, an educational program hosted by the University of California, Merced, for middle school students in the California Central Valley. We served five groups over the span of five weeks in late June and the entirety of July, featuring guest speakers such as Dwight Taylor Sr. and Ranger Shelton Johnson. Although during a regular year, we would have the students come on-campus to learn about college, live in a dorm, sit in real university classrooms, and be exposed to the real option of higher education as a path after high school, we were unfortunately totally virtual this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Brown Youth Academy is one of the many ways that UC Merced serves the California Central Valley and is a leader in social mobility. It’s an unfortunate and shameful but undeniable truth that education in the California Central Valley doesn’t receive the tender love and care it so undeniably deserves. Brown Youth Academy (BYA) specifically targets these individuals: those who are not given the opportunities they deserve growing up. BYA exposes them to higher education, professional careers, STEM, social justice careers, ways to enact change in their local communities, and so much more.

This summer program, I had two roles: I was a general support coordinator, making sure that students were able to make it to the academy every morning, providing technical support, taking attendance and managing groups, and so on; and I taught the coding class at the end of the day. I watched these young teenagers, the future of their worlds, go from having never written a line of code before in their entire lives to expressing themselves, their identities, and their stories through creative means with code being their vehicle there. I took great pleasure in seeing in them the same spark I had in myself when I first began programming.

Everyone writes their first line of code at some point. We got them started and equipped them with the tools and basic mindset that they need to continue fanning their flames, and by the end of the program, we released them back into the world, unstoppable forces and agents of change in their communities. When one of my former students goes back to school, I know they’ll be talking with their friends about this awesome academy they went to during the summer and how they learned this cool thing called “coding,” and that’ll be enough to get the dominoes falling. This strange new activity called “coding” and the never-ending rabbit hole of curiosity that they don’t know I sent them down is unstoppable, both in them and in their communities now. It will spread like a virus and this virus is not one that makes you cough but one that makes you thirsty – thirsty for understanding.

They’ll pursue higher education, pursue science and STEM, raise themselves out of poverty and then come back to raise their communities out of poverty.

Every day we change the world, but to change the world in a way that means anything to anyone – that takes more time than most people have. That’s why we need to do it together.

Working at BYA this summer was an eye-opening and truly emotional experience for me. In each of these children, I realized how privileged I was, blessed with a stable working-class family and a local education system that – despite all its flaws – had teachers that truly, truly cared about me more than I cared about myself. I grew up in a less-than-perfect neighborhood with a lower-class upbringing but seeing those who would love to grow up the way I did, I can safely say: I am privileged.

I am grateful for the opportunity that BYA gave me to use my privileged upbringing to at least expose others to their routes out of poverty. As my high school environmental science teacher once said, “Education is the great equalizer.” Education is how we lift ourselves and each other out of poverty. Education is the weapon that makes the top 1% tremble in fear. An educated population is difficult to oppress – our knowledge is our weapon against ignorance.

My time at BYA has only strengthened my resolve – it has only made my path and vision clearer. It has reminded me to not only do right, but to do good.

Happy trails.