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April 24, 2020
Coding Schools: Training for a New Life

The increase of refugee arrivals in Europe and the US created a significant challenge in the social and economical environment. At the same time, the need for employees in the tech world is constantly growing. One of the most promising ideas emerging from this situation were Coding Schools for refugees. Coding schools were created in order to connect the dots between talented people with a refugee background without tech experience and employment opportunities in the tech world. They are designed to offer not only training on hard skills but soft skill orientation, psychological support and interview preparation. Adding to this, more and more tech companies are looking to recruit refugees in order to increase diversity in the workspace and drive innovation. 

As Nataša Koprtla, Co-Founder of Borders:none and Vincent van Grondelle, Program Manager of Migracode Barcelona, shared with us, the goal is to build a community that not only educates refugees but also supports them through labour integration and helps learners resolve any additional issues they might be dealing with. Let’s find out more about these coding schools.

Would you like to tell us a little bit about your organization and vision?

Nataša: We, in Borders:none believe in integration through connecting with like-minded individuals and learning new skills. Friendship and knowledge are the biggest gifts you can give to someone who was forced to flee their own home. And we strongly believe there are no boundaries in human potential. That is why we help refugees, asylum seekers and other people who were forced to migrate. Our organisation gives them a possibility to make their life better through our programs. We mostly work with young refugees aged 18-30 years old and tailor our projects according to their inputs and needs.

We accept everybody with an interest in this kind of stuff. Our courses begin with workshops about websites, what they are, what they consist of. We analyse them together, we draw wireframes together and interactively we learn about the elements of websites. During the first two weeks of the program we don’t use computers at all. After that, we start with CSS and HTML. We use non-formal methods of learning. They are proven to have the best impact when it comes to adult learners, so mostly we do “learning by doing”. 

Vincent: Migracode Barcelona is a coding school for people with a migration background. People who are in a vulnerable or difficult position. They might not have the educational background or the economic resources to find a job and sustain their life in Spain or Europe. Migracode’s main goal is to support refugees and migrants to get free tech education and to connect them to the tech market. With this labour integration process, we hope to actually improve their living situations. At the same time, we really aim to build a community, a migrants tech community. We bring local people together with our students to promote social inclusion. In Migracode, we create a diverse and inclusive community of people with an interest in coding. Last but not least, we provide first-line Social Work support, if needed. For instance, we may forward our beneficiaries to specialised organisations for trauma counselling.

Who are your teachers? How many developers are volunteering in your courses? 

Nataša: Our teachers are mostly freelancers or they work in small companies or cooperatives. They are developers with many years of experience in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java and Ruby on rails. For now, we mostly stick to HTML and CSS because we believe they are the basis for everything. Most of our teachers are with us from the beginning. They have invested a lot of time and energy in this project. There are currently nine developers participating in our courses. We also have class assistants who help people follow the class and facilitate classes. We use modern technologies, similar to most IT companies (like Slack). They help us stay in touch with our students, to support their tasks and homework writing and to actively discuss topics related to what they learn. 

Vincent: We have more than eighty people in our pool of volunteers who are supporting in teaching. All the teachers are volunteers. Any additional support like LinkedIn support, cv support, legal-related support, career coaching support and so on comes from our volunteers. We also have some volunteers from companies offering soft skills training. There are a lot of people who apply to support our program. Of course, not all of them are constantly involved.

On a weekly basis, we have at least four people actively involved. Fortunately, the network constantly evolves. They join our slack channel and then they can choose how they will offer their service. They can, for example, support in 1-2-1 sessions, support with checking the homework or they can even choose to join a class and support in teaching. There are the main instructors, they teach a full module which lasts around three weeks. We also have some other instructors who are more independent and choose how to support. It surely is a lot to manage since we have limited human resources but using Slack has proven to be the best way to keep them engaged.

You both mentioned several courses and different kinds of training. What courses do you offer and what kind of skills a developer will have gained in the end?

Nataša: We offer basic HTML and CSS classes and advanced HTML and CSS (with a little bit of JavaScript). We had one basic Java course and we had a few workshops on different IT topics. We held courses twice a week for an hour and a half and in the meantime, we use Slack channel for discussion with our students and for supporting them in their homework and tasks. Our approach to learning is non-formal and we mostly do “learning by doing” especially in our advanced classes. We use codepen.io where we work together on various projects and thus learning how to create the different chunks of a website.

We also take our students to events held in local society – all kinds of meetups which could be interesting to them. Due to the specific situation, our groups usually don’t progress to higher levels of education. Croatia is a transit country and we don’t have many refugees and asylum seekers here. People leave the country or find employment in some other profession. They need to work in order to pay for living costs) and prolong their learning process for a few years. 

Vincent: We teach the basics of full-stack until they reach a junior level. We offer courses of five very profound coding front and backend languages such as HTML, CSS, Javascript, React Node JS and database. Basically, we provide them with the main skills and knowledge. When the time comes to join a company they can get a very specific training of the language the company prefers. You can’t prepare someone to know all coding languages perfectly and start right away with every company. So they get basic knowledge and during their first job experience, they can dive deeper into specific languages.

What about funding? Do you receive any support?

Nataša: We don’t get funding. Everything we do is completely on a voluntary basis. One company and some people donated laptops. while venues provide free rooms to organize our classes. That is also one of the reasons we only do one course at a time with a maximum of 10 students. 

Vincent: Being an NGO with limited resources can be challenging. We’ve received great support from the private sector but still, it is a challenge to manage such a project. On the one hand, we’ve been very lucky, we’ve engaged some great partners who have been supporting us very generously. But there still is this constant process we are in. We are searching for sustainable funding in order to include more people and make the management of the program more stable.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far as coding schools?

Nataša: The biggest challenge is to keep our students motivated all the time, not to drop-out. We are dealing with a specific population with a very high risk of dropping out. Marginalised groups are in general prone to drop out. Refugees and asylum seekers with whom we work have their own specifics and obstacles that prevent them from completing courses. That is why we invest a lot of energy not only in teaching but to develop methods to decrease these rates. Other challenges are more related to financing issues – not having our own space and other logistics. But thankfully, due to some donations, we managed to ensure a venue for this year’s courses.

Vincent: There is a big challenge in keeping the students engaged and to not allow external factors of their lives prevent them from finishing or even joining our course. Making sure that students are getting adequate support from us to continue the course has been challenging. Until now we’ve managed to prevent that by providing them with social support.
On a more organisational level, we have limited staff resources and we are managing a code school with thirty-three students and eighty volunteers involved. Of course, having the volunteers around makes this whole project possible but it is a huge challenge to manage. Also, the COVID-19 situation actually caused one of the difficulties we are dealing with. We switched completely to online courses and it is actually going quite well but we miss this important part where we actually meet the students and talk to them face to face.

And what are the next steps for your organization? Do you have any new course coming up?

Nataša: At the moment we’re in the process of writing an application for funding to our municipality. Hopefully, this will be completed within the year. In the future, we hope to be able to provide more courses and to include more weekly hours in our curriculum. This is very much dependable on financial support. We usually have two courses during the year – autumn and spring – and they last three months each. If we manage to get the funding we’ll certainly organize more courses. Courses including basic digital skills for students who need that first step before entering programming classes. 

Vincent: For now, we are aiming to have two groups of students simultaneously each time we start a new course. Right now we have three groups. One started in October as a pilot program with nine students. Two groups of twelve students each, started in March. Currently, we are also planning two new courses to start in June or July, depending on the development of the COVID-19 crisis. Also, we are currently working on a job fair. Given the situation, we switched to an online event and most of the companies we are connected to are interested in hiring. 

Could you share with us an inspiring story from your students?

Nataša: We had a lot of students by now and each story is specific. But I’ll mention just a few of them. We had a student from Egypt who made a total career switch. He started to learn coding with us, then we managed to find a traineeship for him. Α year and a half from when he started learning he found a job in one of the biggest Croatian companies all by himself. He is still learning and thriving to get to a higher level.

Another inspiring story comes from a  very young man from Syria who started learning with us but due to job obligations he couldn’t attend. Ηe continued all by himself and managed to master the materials. We are still supporting him until he can get an internship in an IT company. 

I’ll just mention two more older men who are great examples of highly motivated students. Both of them didn’t have any background in this field and their digital skills were on the lower level. One of them was from Ukraine and didn’t understand English. He studied a lot at home, in Russian. Both managed to finish the basic course and are highly motivated to continue. 

Vincent: Most of our students are facing various difficulties in their everyday life. Some of them are sharing a very small apartment with five people or single parenting their children. It’s amazing how at the end of the day they still manage to keep up and successfully continue with our program, with graduation in prospect. Also, after the coronavirus outbreak, it has turned out to be quite a challenge for us and for our students to move all of our classes online. We also moved our job fair to an online event. During this event, six companies participated and had sessions with our students. After this event at least three from nine graduate students got job interviews. They are currently in the process of interviewing. I think it shows a lot about our student’s possibilities, effort and ambition. 

Last but not least, how can someone contribute to these coding schools?

Nataša: There are several ways of how people or companies can get involved. We are always looking for new developers who would like to volunteer. At the moment we are running online classes so volunteers don’t need to be based in Zagreb. Developers can help in other ways as well – homework help, supporting individuals who need more support regardless of school classes. We are in a need for the equipment –mostly laptops but also additional gear. And of course, we need financial donations to keep us running the school. We want to provide more different courses and a larger number of classes for our students. In the end, companies can support our students by giving them opportunities for traineeship or internship.

Vincent: We are currently finding out that online teaching actually works. So for people who aren’t currently in Barcelona can contribute by having one-two-ones sessions with our students. They can also help with checking homework admissions and leaving feedback. On another level, companies can help with financing, material donations, space and soft skills training.

Short bio:

Nataša Koprtla is working with the Borders:None organization. She is a project manager with more than 10 years of experience in digital agencies, creative advertising agencies, IT companies. A psychologist and youth worker in the field of refugee youth and young asylum seekers. She has 4 years of experience working directly with young refugees and carrying out the projects related to this group.

Connect with Borders:none on Facebook

Vincent van Grondelle is the Program Manager of Migracode Barcelona. With a background in Social Work, Data Analysis and Non-Profit Management, he is now responsible for reporting, financing, managing volunteers, supporting students and for creating non-profit and corporate business relationships.

Connect Migracode on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Looking to find out more about how other NGO’s are contributing to the tech environment? Visit our interview with Naomi Molefe, SA Chairperson in Women in Big Data, or our discussion with James Sugrue, co-Founder of donate:code and Aggelina Mila, coordinating Business Development at Social Hackers Academy.



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