Mary Kesete just finished her senior year in high school at the Chicago Math and Science Academy, a public charter school on the city’s north side. The school’s motto is “Nothing is Impossible,” and Mary is a prime example of what that means in real life. She’s a finalist for the Questbridge National College Match. Through this college and scholarship program, students can apply for free to some of the best universities in the country, and be considered for early admission and a full four-year scholarship. Mary listed a few schools on her application, including MIT, Columbia, and Boston University – but her top choice is MIT, where she wants to study computer science.

When we asked Mary about her dream job, she wasn’t committed to one company or job description, but she knows how she wants to start her career after college. “I know that there are a lot of career paths under computer science, but I want to start my career as a web developer, and then maybe move to data science or cyber security,” she shared. Web design and development was introduced to Mary through Code Nation’s curriculum during her second year of high school. She found out about the six month course offering through her counselor during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all of her usual school activities had been put on pause in order for everyone to stay safely at home. Even though Mary didn’t have any experience in coding, and frankly, didn’t have a lot of interest in the subject either, she was intrigued and excited by Code Nation’s mission to bring more diversity to the tech industry. “I did my research on Code Nation. They have big goals to bring minorities into tech, so I wanted to be a part of that.”

Mary was surprised by her experience in that first class – she found herself tapping into her creativity, connecting with her peers, laughing with her volunteer teachers. Even though it was offered online and Mary spent all day in virtual classes, she looked forward to her virtual Code Nation meetings every week.

After wrapping up her first class, she decided to pursue the summer program to continue to build her skills before enrolling in Code Nation’s after-school Fellowship program: an advanced coding class taught by volunteers in a tech office in Chicago. Mary started her Fellowship with Grubhub in a virtual format. She loved her time with the group, and appreciated how easy it is to collaborate on coding projects online. As soon as the city began to open up for more in-person activities and she attended the program in person, something new was added to Mary’s experience: conversations happened organically. She could raise her hand and ask questions in real time, and be more transparent about where she was facing challenges. But most importantly – Mary began to build a network. She shared, “I remember the class ended at 6:30 PM, and we would stay until at least 7 PM to talk to the volunteers, like learning about what they majored in or what it’s like to work in tech. That was one of the best parts. I met people who majored in things like biomedical engineering and psychology, but after taking coding classes, now they work at big tech companies.”

Mary has become the resident expert on Code Nation at her school. As one of just four students enrolled in the Fellowship II program at Google, newer students were asking for her advice about the experience, what she’s learned, and if they should try it out, too. They can’t believe she gets to work out of places like Google and Grubhub, and Mary can’t believe how far she’s come in just three years.

In addition to thinking about her future at college, Mary wrapped up her senior year on a committee focused on fundraising and planning senior events, and she’s just finished a second Code Nation Fellowship with Google, where she got to be on-site in Google’s new Chicago based office every week. She’s continuing to refine her communication skills and advance her coding acumen. But when we asked Mary what was most important to share with us in her story, she talked about her future career and the pathway the Code Nation has given her to pursue it. “I don’t think I would know that I would want to major in computer science without Code Nation. Everyone talks about the big majors – medicine, law, engineering, all that stuff. I wouldn’t know that coding is a skill that I could do, and learning that I could code opened a pathway to a career for me.”

This post is part of our #10YearsOfCodeNation celebration. We’re sharing the stories of our people: students, alums, volunteers, partners, and the committed staff who bring our vision to life.

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