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Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Code the Dream Works to Bring Coding Skills to Immigrants

By Sherrell Dorsey

Daisy (last name withheld) didn’t learn she and her family were in the country illegally until she was 14 years old. By that time, she’d been living in the United States for over 10 years since her family immigrated from Accra, Ghana, to Connecticut. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce when her father broke the news. Not knowing how her revealed status would affect her life, Daisy continued to cross many hurdles as a non-citizen, being ineligible for financial aid for college, facing difficulties to renew her driver's license, and walking in a silent shame of being unable to reveal her truth. 

Despite notable setbacks in her life, Daisy was able to land a full scholarship to college and made it halfway through law school before her inability to renew her driver's license meant that private loans were now off limits. Her story, however, is a rarity. Nearly 1 in 4 undocumented immigrants in this country live in poverty with limited access to education and high-paying jobs.

Code the Dream is hoping to turn things around for low income and immigrant communities through tech.

Based in Durham, North Carolina, Code the Dream offers a free, six-week introductory coding course in the heart of the downtown district at local startup co-working hub American Underground.  

The program was uniquely designed to increase economic opportunities for children of immigrants by providing in-demand skills training to help them launch better-paying careers in the city’s growing technology ecosystem. Students learn ground-level software development and, by the end of the course, have the skills to create their first mobile app.

“Our goal is to make NC a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees to give them the [same] possibilities and opportunities as everyone else,” said Dan Rearick, executive director of United NC, the nonprofit behind Code the Dream. “Most of the students we work with come from immigrant families with low-income backgrounds. Many of them have not been able to afford to go to college.”

An estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrant peoples live in the United States, according to Pew Research Center statistics. In North Carolina, over 260,000 people live illegally in the state. This population is twice as likely to live in abject poverty without options for Medicare, food stamps, subsidized housing or advanced education. Many are forced to work low-wage, highly-laborious jobs in order to provide for themselves and their families.

While many people in the population Code the Dream serves are undocumented, they are still able to work legally. Rearick explains:

It is confusing mainly because of all the dozens of different immigration statuses and what people can do with each. We do have many students who were at some point undocumented when they were younger, and for that reason their options were severely limited. Some of those who benefit most from our program have still only been able to qualify for a status called DACA ("Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals"), under which they have work authorization but no path toward citizenship and no eligibility for financial aid or in-state tuition (at least in NC).

Still in its infancy, Code the Dream has graduated its first cohort of 12 students who have gone on to intensive studies at advanced coding camps. Daisy completed the program last spring and earned a scholarship to the Iron Yard. She now works as a software developer at a local major university.


“Coding is inherently difficult. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the fast-paced environment if I hadn’t had my instructors from Code the Dream at my side," she recalled. "It was intimidating. But tech is collaborative, and during the program we all worked together on assignments. It was a supportive environment that let you know anything is possible."

Despite its best intentions, the program appears to still face barriers in truly engaging the vulnerable communities it intends to support. For instance, all programming is taught in English, requiring that students are already fluent in speech and writing. Marketing to draw students into the class is also limited to locally-known networks and youth who are already relatively tech savvy.

Perhaps addressing basic tech skills among this population in connection with language skills can provide a poverty-alleviation tool while simultaneously adding diversity to the tech industry as a whole.

But first, solving for basic issues in this community could warrant much deeper, long-term outcomes.

For instance, a host of hack-a-thons to solve issues for undocumented and refugee immigrants have begun to pop up in cities that beg the question: What other challenges can be hacked to help solve issues immigrants face when they do not have access to full citizenship? Issues like employer exploitation, domestic violence, access to supportive benefits and not being able to bank traditionally are particular opportunities for innovation and advancement.

“It’s only been a year and a half, but we’re developing the possibility for our students to have a totally life-changing opportunity that will allow them to support their families and go from working low-income jobs to become a software developer," Rearick explained. "Our partners include Cisco, IBM and other local startups. The goal is to get more diverse communities represented in tech so that we can come up with the best solutions possible to problems experienced by these diverse groups."

Image courtesy of Code the Dream

Ed note: This piece was updated after it was published to reflect the fact that some adults who came to the U.S. as children (undocumented immigrants) can work legally without having a pathway to citizenship. 

Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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