Spotlight on : Lead Instructor Roger Vera

Roger Vera. Photo Credit: Karl Rabe/ Vassar College

Roger Vera is a senior at Vassar College, majoring in computer science. He has been a Teaching Assistant and a Lead Instructor for All Star Code, and will be a Lead Instructor for the 2018 Summer Intensive.

How’d you hear about All Star Code?

I first heard of ASC in an email that was sent out by my school’s computer science department. There was a guy in the year above me who was as a Teaching Assistant for ASC’s Summer Intensive the previous year. ASC was reaching out with hopes of getting more Lead Instructors and Teaching Assistants for ASC 3. This was back in 2016.

It was the first job opportunity email that truly caught my eye because of All Star Code’s mission. In college, you get to see how the tech diversity gap comes to exist from simply looking around a classroom. I’m a first-generation college student too. So, at the time, I didn’t know anyone older than me who was Black or Latino and had gone on to graduate and work in tech. I saw this as an opportunity to help the generations that came after me.

I had long been interested in education and teaching too, so it was a great converging of interests.

I remember being like, “I wish this was here when I was in high school.”

What was it like being a TA that first year?

I had just finished my sophomore year, and I still felt at first that I wasn’t sure if I knew enough to teach. I was thinking you really had to be on top of your CS knowledge game. Coming into it, I didn’t know how ASC truly incorporates soft-skills and facilitating self-growth into the SI curriculum. I had a lot more to offer than my technical knowledge. I had my story and experiences. That’s what forms those strong connections with your students.

That summer was really memorable. I was experiencing things for the first time too, just like our students. Going to site visits to big tech companies, meeting industry leaders of color, and just learning all these new things about myself were some of the highlights of my first year. I was seeing myself in a world I never had thought I’d be in either.

That year really solidified my relationship with All Star Code and made me want to continue to work with them in the future. The mission of creating more opportunities for underserved kids of color will always mean a lot to me.

So what do you do as a TA?

What we do is a lot of one-on-one help with projects; coaching when someone needs extra help on a project, being available to assist when the Lead Instructor is going around the classroom, and just in general being able to build relationships with them, connect closer and mentor them.

Do you keep in touch?

Yeah! With the Goldman Sachs cohort, and the Yahoo cohort from last year, definitely. A lot us added each other on Facebook and Instagram. With some of them, I’m seeing them go through their first year of college now…it’s kind of funny, because the relationships you have start to evolve. I always like to say that we’re an ASC family. Having former students feel comfortable enough to reach out for help or just to talk to you is something special you know?

So the next year you became a Lead Instructor?

Yeah, I was going to apply to be a TA again. I wasn’t expecting for ASC to ask me to apply for the Lead Instructor position! I was surprised, but honored. To be able to do that while still in college was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. It was really powerful to have that level of responsibility for the first time. I learned a lot about myself.

Was there a big step between TA and LI?

Yeah, it was a huge step, just because what you’re in charge of is so much bigger, and you have to be a lot more organized. You have to make sure the classroom vibe stays fun and enjoyable. You have to be there for your instructional team. You have to be prepared to deal with problems on the fly. Being in charge of not just one aspect, but being in charge of the bigger picture, that’s a lot to do. Like one of ASC’s three pillars says, you really have to be ready to celebrate failures as you learn along the way.

What’s your favorite part of the program?

Definitely Demo Day! That final week where they build their final projects is my favorite. You see students, who came in knowing nothing at all about coding, finish off with something they can be proud about. It’s not easy at all.

Also, the graduation ceremony. You get to see everyone’s hard work pay off. Seeing the students pitch their apps on stage, while their proud families are in the audience, it’s just something else. I feel like a proud parent too in that moment.

For the last day at the Yahoo cohort, I had our students do a final activity where they all get a piece of paper with their name on it, and everyone writes a goodbye message for each of their peers. One of our students was like “Why don’t we get to write anything for the instructional staff?” So our teaching fellow, teaching assistant, on-site coordinator, and I all each got an awesome goodbye gift. It really showed how solid of a team we were.

I still have mine. It’s laminated.

What’d they write?

Oh, just stuff like “Thank you for all your help and teaching me.” One student wrote “You motivated me, I am very appreciative of that.” One of them wrote “I wish you were my dad.” That one’s a classic. We had a lot of fun that summer. I really didn’t know how much of an impact I had until reading all those comments. It was all really heartfelt.

Anything else you want to add?

I guess just that, keep spreading the word of ASC. We’re doing amazing things out there.