Pursuit is creating a revolution of diversity in tech
Courtesy of Tiffany Obi
True

With the COVID-19 pandemic upending her community, Brooklyn-based singer Tiffany Obi turned to healing those who had lost loved ones the way she knew best — through music.

Obi quickly ran into one glaring issue as she began performing solo at memorials. Many of the venues where she performed didn't have the proper equipment for her to play a recorded song to accompany her singing. Often called on to perform the day before a service, Obi couldn't find any pianists to play with her on such short notice.

As she looked at the empty piano at a recent performance, Obi's had a revelation.

"Music just makes everything better," Obi said. "If there was an app to bring musicians together on short notice, we could bring so much joy to the people at those memorials."

Using the coding skills she gained at Pursuit — a rigorous, four-year intensive program that trains adults from underserved backgrounds and no prior experience in programming — Obi turned this market gap into the very first app she created.

She worked alongside four other Pursuit Fellows to build In Tune, an app that connects musicians in close proximity to foster opportunities for collaboration.

When she learned about and applied to Pursuit, Obi was eager to be a part of Pursuit's vision to empower their Fellows to build successful careers in tech. Pursuit's Fellows are representative of the community they want to build: 50% women, 70% Black or Latinx, 40% immigrant, 60% non-Bachelor's degree holders, and more than 50% are public assistance recipients.


"Technology is the future and I knew Pursuit would give me access to the future I want to build for myself," Obi said. "It's obvious that minority students from diverse and nontraditional backgrounds don't have access to all of the knowledge that's out there and Pursuit is putting it right into our laps."

Putting that knowledge into action, In Tune took the Audience Choice Award at Pursuit's virtual Technical Showcase — a competition that gives Fellows the chance to demo their apps and get feedback from engineers in the industry.

Courtesy of Tiffany Obi

More than one hundred viewers tuned in and voted for their favorite app. Fellows also received feedback in real-time from a panel of judges.

"Winning the showcase was icing on the cake because we stayed true," Obi said. "We knew our 'why' and believed in it. When we were all working together in the code and fixing it, sometimes 12 hours would go by before we even took a break."

While none of those Fellows had any prior experience developing an app, the group received mentorship from Manish Singh, an iOS developer at Capital One, to help bring their vision to life in just six weeks.

Singh joined four other associates from Capital One to comprise roughly half of the mentors to Pursuit's current class of Fellows. Capital One has partnered with Pursuit since 2014. This year, the company's associates made up the entirety of the judging panel at the Technical Showcase.

Mentors from Capital One like Singh or Adrian Bolinger, a software engineer who has volunteered with Pursuit, are eager to contribute to the organization's vision to create a thriving and inclusive tech industry.

"Capital One is doing something that is going to have a long lasting impact — it's not going to be ephemeral or go away," says Adrian Bolinger, a software engineer at Capital One who volunteers with Pursuit. "Pursuit Fellows walk away from this experience with something that nobody can ever take away from them."

Obi saw this mentorship from Capital One engineers as an invaluable part of In Tune's development.

"It meant everything to have Manish take a look at what we were building and show us the next steps he would take," Obi said. "As I was coding I would talk him through every part of the process in the simplest of terms, as if I was explaining my steps to a rubber ducky."

Courtesy of Manish Singh

Singh knew he was mentoring a truly special group when he first met them and learned of their diverse backgrounds.

While his formal mentorship to this group of Fellows concluded after the technical showcase, Alex Paul, lead iOS instructor at Pursuit, says that Singh is continuing to help Obi and her teammates launch the app publicly.

Paul sees mentorships from Capital One engineers as an instrumental resource to the success of Pursuit's Fellows.

"Students from underrepresented backgrounds often don't always have a sibling or friend that studied coding and can teach them, especially if they're the first one to go to college in their family," Paul said.

In addition to helping launch careers in tech, Paul says that mentors from Capital One will be pivotal in helping Fellows advance their careers.

"What happens now is that people like Tiffany will give back to Fellows," Paul said. "Pursuit is founded on this cycle of giving."

Obi says she is committed to ensuring that future Fellows benefit from the same mentorship she did.

"It means everything to be a part of the set of people that are breaking down barriers in tech," Obi said. "I want to be a leader for future generations who may want to follow in my footsteps. Even now, I sometimes sit my nephew next to me while I code so that when he's introduced to it down the road he can fly through the process."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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