How mentoring for Festival of Code 2015 helped me decide what to do with my life

Last week was, without doubt, my favourite week so far; I enjoyed it so much that I’d even go as far as to say that it’s changed the way I’m thinking about my future. And obviously, when you’re as recent a graduate as I am, lost in a sea of potential career paths and job applications you’re not even excited about, these are exactly the kinds of experiences you welcome with a warm embrace.

We spent the week in Croydon’s Lives Not Knives unit mentoring a group of kids, aged 8–17, in the run up to this year’s Festival of Code. At the start of the week, we all introduced ourselves: “Hello,” I said, “I’m Saff. I know nothing about code or programming, but I’ll be incredibly nice to you.” And that, essentially, is what I spent the week doing: being nice to kids. The other mentors were so knowledgeable when it came to technical stuff, and so good at explaining to the kids when they needed help, that my lack of knowledge didn’t feel like a drawback at all.

I managed to snap Alex (red hoodie) sneakily playing Minecraft while Sanjay introduced the persona-invention task.

We kicked the week off by familiarizing the kids with the concept of open data and by getting them to look at data sets they could possibly use in their projects — the only rule for the festival is that the project has to contain one piece of open data. After ideas flew around the room for a couple of hours, we decided on four teams: The Truth of The Red Pill (a complex alternate reality game inspired by The Matrix), Hairstyle Tryer-Outer (a website for checking how the latest rainbow-coloured hairstyles would suit you), Ratify (a web app for checking food standards in the local area) and Route Crime (assisting the elderly to take a safer route home by checking the amount of crime in a certain area). These were clearly incredibly diverse ideas — it was great to have so much difference in the room!

Sanjay’s best magician impersonation.

Throughout the week, we led various design exercises that whatleads.to use in our design process — the funniest of which was probably when we prompted them to imagine personas of their target audience. For those who don’t know, this is common practice when developing almost any product — you literally invent a made-up person you can imagine using whatever it is you’re making (I thought this was hilarious when I first learnt about it a few weeks ago, but now I can see how it makes a lot of sense). When we did this with the kids, they were really creative and insightful — while also having a laugh at the same time.

FRIENDS!

I know it’s wrong to have favourites when it comes to working with kids, but just like with any other group of people, there are always certain individuals you connect with in a remarkable way. It’s probably quite difficult to imagine now I’m a 23-year-old gobby feminist with a permanent residence atop my soapbox, but I was painfully shy when I was younger. My friends and classmates were much more outgoing than I was, which meant that if I ever did want to say anything, they’d usually just say it much louder and whatever I had to say was swept under the rug. Last week, I saw the same thing happening to the shy kids in the group, and it made me sad at first. But the best thing about being an adult who works with kids, I quickly found out, is that you have the hindsight, capacity and responsibility to intervene where you see these things happening — and I’m incredibly proud to say that I truly played a role in giving the quieter kids in the room a louder voice (although it was 99% them, of course. I was just a nudge in the right direction).

Jerome working incredibly hard.

Last week working with these kids, and with other adults who clearly shared my desire to encourage and support the kids, was such an eye-opener for me. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided I don’t want to do anything else — so after I’ve come back from travelling next year, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve always known that I’d love to work with kids — I’ve spent the last year and a half volunteering as a cookery teacher for primary age girls, which has been the light of my life in a haze of exams and essays — but this experience has cemented it for me fully.

I’m so pleased I’ve been able to spend my summer doing an internship that’s shown me something I want to spend my life doing. I feel so lucky to have been able to provide emotional and pastoral support to those kids throughout the week, and it was such a pleasure to watch them get so excited and passionate about their projects. What a momentous occasion it is, after a lifetime of being the most indecisive person on earth, to have finally made a decision.