Hack4Impact — A community of students that care

Building Technology for Social Good, one step at a time

Timothy Ko
Aug 29, 2019 · 5 min read

Last Spring, I found myself at Grainger at 1 am with a couple of peers. We met each other 10 weeks ago but have grown very comfortable with each other, sharing a Manolo’s pizza as we laughed about the embarrassing stories we told each other. We were all widely different — one of us loving hamsters and may have been an animal whisperer, one of us having an inscrutable attachment to Cheez-its, and another known for his trickery and pranks. It was 2 days before we had to demo our product to Love without Boundaries, the non-profit we were working with. The Cambodian government began testing prospective upper education students on English competency and LWB needed a way to keep track of their volunteer tutors and high school students and each of the student’s progress in learning English. We’ve already been in the basement for over 4 hours, ignoring the programming assignment we had due the next day or the midterm we had to start studying for. Instead, we were working to polish this standalone application that started from nothing 10 weeks ago.

At this point, I was wholly astonished of the dedication of my team members. Indeed, amid tests, interviews, and deprivation of sleep, this group of people deeply cared about the work we did — motivated by their desire to do good and the support of each other — and were willing to spend a tremendous amount of their own time working towards a common goal. It wasn’t anything that I ever saw, even in the myriad of student organizations that I joined that year.

Members spend an average of 8–10 hrs a week outside of school working closely with NGOs!

Indeed, in the midst of tests, interviews, and deprivation of sleep, this group of people deeply cared about the work we did — motivated by their desire to do good and the support of each other — and were willing to spend a tremendous amount of their own time working towards a common goal.

Working to build a healthier society isn’t a challenge that anyone can just wait for the right time and have the right resources and knowledge to begin pursuing. It is something that, we as students, can play a part in. At Hack4Impact, we believe the same technologies used to disrupt industries can be leveraged to empower non-profit organizations that serve people around the world. But oftentimes, after 4 years of premier education, the majority of us relocate to Silicon Valley or Seattle or New York, concentrating technical talent into geographic locations. Yet, problems are not. It is our obligation to bridge this gap, to use the skills and resources we were privileged to learn and have and work to make technology more accessible and inclusive to underserved communities. But technologies are just tools, and it’s about how we use them.

Working to build a healthier society isn’t a challenge that anyone can just wait for the right time and have the right resources and knowledge to begin pursuing. It is something that, we as students, can play a part in.

As computer science students in a research-based university, we often find ourselves learning about theory, without the concept of users. It’s as if we are being taught writing as grammar, without mentioning that writing is a way of communicating ideas to other people. Like writing, software is a way of communicating to an audience and we emphasize this as we build products for people — to be user-centric and always going back to the user when doing so.

In addition, learning to collaborate in teams is a skill that’s learned and polished through experience. But we’ve all been there, in a class group project with a couple other students that also don’t want to be there. At least one of them doesn’t do the work they promised to do, resulting in us grudgingly picking up their work. Thus, we don’t learn to collaborate, to work together to create something greater than we alone can do. We rarely get to experience genuine teamwork in development teams made up of students; where each person is equally dedicated while leaders pursue to create an environment geared towards service and contribution. One that is more open, trusting, and giving such that new insights, learnings, and excitement are continuous as we are unified towards the same goal — to solve problems for our non-profit partners to help further their mission. Our developers learn to make Pull Requests, systematically plan out their steps to completing features, reviewing code and nonetheless grow as better teammates in longer-term projects. And most importantly, developers get to work on projects that aren’t built and thrown away in vain, but on something for real users.

Karaoke, one of the traditions we have here

However, our community makes us who we are. We work to foster a community where people are free to discuss everything from their academics to their personal life, creating meaningful relationships that last. We develop this through weekly highs and lows, banquets, retreats, org-wide assassins, cookoffs, and many more activities. Cultivating a community is our number one priority and creates a sense of engagement in the community for each of its members and establishes a sense of personal accountability while working on projects. More on this here! At the end of the day, Hack4Impact’s biggest impact is through its members because they are the ones who will continue the tech & social impact in their future careers.

At Hack4Impact, we strive to be aware of the challenges our communities are facing and give a shit about them. By prioritizing giving back, we can all make a difference. Our primary avenue of impact is through technology, but we understand technology is just a tool and isn’t always the solution to everything. But there are tremendous opportunities to work together to solve problems in the world; we each have to make the first step.

Thank you for reading! For more stories like these and updates, follow Hack4Impact UIUC on Facebook and Github.

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