Jennifer Gaspar-Santos: Woman, Mother, Filipina & Teacher Who Codes

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“My mother says, “Either you laugh or you cry.” I like this. It helps me overcome failure. You can either accept failure and laugh about it, or you can cry and let it overtake you.” — Jennifer Gaspar-Santos

Meet Jennifer Gaspar-Santos, the Director of Educational Technology and Innovation at St.Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, CA. She’s also a mother, a Filipina and a lover of curiosity. Jennifer could not say no when one of her students approached her to help start a Girls Who Code Club at school. She says, “It’s that curiosity that pushes folks past the hard part of coding.”

While Jennifer never self-identified as a stereotypical “geeky” coder, she remembers always loving computers. In fact, she claims to have always loved computers more than ice cream. That’s really saying something!

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Read more about Jennifer’s passion for code, her role models and how coding has helped her overcome her fear of failure in our Q&A below.

Q&A with Jennifer Gaspar-Santos:

Why did you join the Girls Who Code movement?

The movement speaks to me both as a female director in ed tech and as a female director who is also a person of color. It’s not lost on me how much my role as a Director helps model for girls that anything is possible. We can leverage our identity to push the norms. I was also touched by an enthusiastic student who asked me if I would help start a Girls Who Code club on our campus. She attended the Summer Immersion Program and wanted that same experience to continue at the school. I literally didn’t even have my boxes unpacked from summer break and she asked me to help get this club going. I can’t say no to a student when they genuinely are curious about something.

Were you always interested in computers?

Yes, I remember when my parents bought me my first computer from sears and it broke. I cried and my mom was so sweet that she said she would buy me an ice cream to make me feel better. I like computers more than ice cream.

What’s the hardest part of learning to code?

Being graded on coding and ridiculed by others who know how to code is the hardest part. I’ll be teaching an intro to design thinking and app development course next year and I’m committed to de-stigmatizing the idea that you have to be really smart to code. The biggest roadblock to innovation is fear and this same fear applies to coding. I think grades perpetuate the idea that you have to get an A in order to be a good coder.

It’s a horrible thought that coders were born with a coding gene. I prefer having the disposition to be curious. It’s that curiosity that pushes folks past the hard part of coding.

Is coding creative?

It’s an art, not a science. It’s using text and logic and variables to create something that didn’t exist previously.

How has coding made you feel more confident?

Coding is like a super power. I know I can roll up my sleeves and learn to code — with or without formal training. The ability to create something that someone once told you only smart people can do is really satisfying.

Has coding made you more comfortable with failure? Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.

I don’t think this form is long enough. #FailEarlyFailOften

One instance I can think of was hosting my first hour of code. I had this grand idea of collaborating with our school library, our science department, multimedia lab and our social justice club as this inter-club block filled with hour of code activities. I had kids who didn’t know where they were going, rooms were booked, kids eating cookies instead of coding, I had python going on my screen but some other kids on social media. One girl even got lost in the shuffle. It was disorganized.

I even had one girl say, “This isn’t for me,” which broke my heart. I was definitely biting off more than I could chew.

I overcame it by naming it. I had to accept the failure. I had to embrace it and call everything I did wrong. I couldn’t point fingers. I just accepted it. Once you accept the failure, you can put it in its place — behind you — and move on.

Have you ever been stereotyped because you code?

I have had people stereotype me because I code. They think that I must also be good in school and be a complete geek. I actually didn’t do very well in school. I thrived in learning situations that were experiential and, unfortunately, most of my schooling was so traditional that I didn’t do well in those settings. I’m also not a complete geek, I’m a Filipino mother of two that happens to like to code. I like when coding brings together people of all backgrounds. It’s not just for “geeks.” I think folks overcome stereotypes by debunking the idea that only some folks can code and by keeping curious, by embracing your interests and by letting your inner voice guide your curiosity. Forget all the other outside voices–it’s just noise!

Who is your role model?

My mother and Lena Dunham are my role models. Both are feminists, both are amazing at their crafts, and both have made me feel so confident after listening to them talk. I don’t know Lena Dunham personally, but I think if she did meet me, we’d be friends.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My mother says, “Either you laugh or you cry.” I like this. It helps me overcome failure. You can either accept failure and laugh about it, or you can cry and let it overtake you. I think the second you laugh at something, you strip it of its power. This piece of advice has also gotten me through roadblocks in my life as both a mother and a female director in technology. I like how it presents choices. It allows the person to decide the road they want to take. It makes me feel like I’m in control of where I want to go.

What would you say to the girl who says coding isn’t for her?

I would sit her in front of my laptop. Give her some hot cocoa and hit play on Reshma Saujani’s TED talk on bravery and ask her if she still felt the same way. If she’s coming from a place of fear, I would tell her that she’s awesome and that there are lots of girls out there that feel the same way. I would start with an unplugged coding activity first to debunk the myth in her head that coding is too hard. If she’s coming from a place of disinterest, I would tell her all the amazing things people create with code.

How can a girl who’s interested in computer science get started?

Get started with unplugged activities. Use legos, paper and non technical ways of learning code. The best way to get started is commit to 10 min every other day, then build to 10 min every day then build to 30 min per week. Approach it like a building a muscle. Every exercise gets you stronger and stronger.

What piece of technology can you not live without?

I can’t live without paper. Yes, that’s my favorite piece of technology.

Which of your recently used emojis describes you perfectly?

I like the smirking face emoji. I’m half smile, half silly. Folks take themselves too seriously with coding. It’s fun if you let it be fun.

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