Eca Itabelo first used a computer in middle school.
“Where I’m from, we don’t use computers,” she said.
Itabelo, now 18 and a senior at North High School, moved from Tanzania to Iowa with her family in 2017. She was still learning English when she joined a tech program through the nonprofit Pi515, where she learned how to build a website.
Today, Itabelo is learning how to code at the new Principal Community Learning Center, this time through a tech mentorship program with Pi515 and Principal Financial Group.
“For me to even be here right now, I feel seen. I feel chosen. Not everyone has this opportunity,” she said with a huge smile.
Pi515 is a nonprofit that teaches technology, career, and leadership skills to students who are refugees or underserved so that they can be successful and gain stability within their families and communities. It offers many programs, partnerships, and opportunities with professionals in careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to prepare students who come from diverse, or low-income families.
“We get to show kids who they can be,” said Nancy Mwirotsi, who founded the nonprofit seven years ago.
“It’s really important that we close the poverty gap …the gap in tech skills.”
‘They surprise us everyday’
On a December evening, an employee at Principal asked the group of Pi515 students the first thing they should type to define a function.
That day, they were resuming lessons on Python — a coding language — at Principal’s modern Community Learning Center downtown.
“Isn’t it just ‘d-e-f’?” one student said. He got it right.
Then, as the students huddled around laptops and created holiday to-do lists using Python, one student showed a Des Moines Register reporter a friendship quiz he made through Python.
“I didn’t know code three weeks ago,” Joey Brekelmans, 16, a junior at Southeast Polk, said. In fact, he told the Register he didn’t think he wanted to learn how to code.
“They surprise us everyday,” Mwirotsi said. Their curiosity and growth, their eagerness to learn, their creativity, and their focus is what drives Mwirotsi. That, and seeing hundreds of her students graduate and chase their dreams, she said.
This work has been gratifying for officials at Principal as well, said Miriam Lewis, the company’s chief inclusion officer.
“This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.
She and Shekinah Young, Principal’s global inclusion consultant, have seen the gap in tech skills and disparities in access to information when hiring.
Their partnership with Pi515, Young said, “it was natural.”
‘It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s better to have computer skills’
In the upcoming fall, Itabelo will be headed off to college. She’s thinking Drake University or, if she can get a full ride, Iowa State University.
Itabelo plans to study psychology, but she knows she’ll use the skills she has learned through Pi515.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s better to have computer skills,” she said. But the program has also meant much more to her than that, she said. She’s met friends, mentors, and professionals.
And Itabelo learned how much she appreciates coding because it teaches the importance of detail, she said. She loves working on a team, and with people she can relate to. Building confidence with one another is key, she said.
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Itabelo often thinks about where she came from, and where she is now.
“It’s scary, but I’m going to do it,” she said.
Mwirotsi has seen that potential since she first met Itabelo when the teenager was in middle school, she told her.
Then she said: “Once you get a job offer, call me. I’ll help you negotiate.”