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It’s a hot summer day in the beginning of August and class lets out in the USC Iovine and Young Academy’s Garage. It’s time for lunch. Instead of running out to go eat, a group of eight or so teenage boys swarm Oscar Menjivar, founder and CEO of Teens Exploring Technology (TXT), a Los Angeles-based non-profit whose technology and coding programs aim to teach middle and high school age boys of color the leadership, professional and interpersonal skills they need to succeed as adults.
Oscar is the nucleus of a circle of students whose excitement is palpable, and, with the easy and conversational way he interacts with them, I can see why.
I sit down with Oscar, intrigued by his approachability and wanting to know how, since TXT’s founding, he and his team have mentored about 500 high school age boys from one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods to go on to earn degrees from 4-year universities around the country.
This summer, the USC Iovine and Young Academy’s Garage was the home of TXT’s 15-week Summer Coding Academy, a full-time program for 35 high school age boys from minority communities who work closely with the non-profit’s staff to build web and mobile apps that address community problems. The program is intense— (students are expected to be on campus every weekday from 10am-3pm) —and highly selective: Out of the 200-250 applications that TXT receives each year, only 35 are selected to participate following a multi-step interview process.
Based in Oscar’s hometown of south central Los Angeles, TXT is strategically located to serve a community that has long been overlooked. Oscar tells me that south central’s population is approximately 70% Latino and 30% African American, with a 50% high school dropout rate among the region’s young men. TXT’s students, Oscar explains, are driven, eager to learn and passionate about technology, but they face significant barriers to professional and economic success: Approximately 60% have access to a computer at home, and of that group, about 10-15% have their own, individual computer.
Not long ago, Oscar was one of those young men, susceptible to straying from the path to success had it not been for the mentorship of a former lacrosse coach, Mr. Wonders. “I met Mr. Wonders when he caught me ditching a class. That was in 6th grade. He told me to come to practice after school or he’d take me to the principal’s office, so I decided to come to practice,” Oscar relays with a chuckle.
As we talk, Oscar describes a school system that did little to channel students’ interests into viable career paths. Interested in technology since his youth, Oscar enrolled in computer science classes at his high school, then the worst school in Los Angeles County. The classes, as it turned out, “were really more like 3-4 years of typing,” Oscar tells me. “They would give us a book and we would use that to learn how to type.”
In recalling his childhood, Oscar paints a picture of a world full of negativity— (he tells me that the Rodney King riots were taking place during his high school years, and that high crime and school dropout rates were just as much a problem then as they are now) —and a system that provided little opportunities for young men to break the cycle of violence and joblessness that so pervades south central’s communities.
It was Mr. Wonders, Oscar tells me, that broke this cycle for him: “He made sure that I was doing well in school. He would pick me up from my house every day at 5 am to make sure that I got to school on time. Mr. Wonders always wanted me to do something different from the common aspirations in Watts, so he’d take me to Fry’s Electronics to go look at the computers and he’d ask me what I thought about them and what I thought about this or that career path. I was already interested in computers, but having someone to keep me on track, to develop me, make sure that I went to college, that was really important to me.”
Oscar did go on to college and he earned a degree in Computer Information Systems, and then went on to earn a master’s degree as well.
Having broken the cycle of negativity that Oscar tells me many of his high school friends unfortunately fell prey to, he now finds fulfillment in coaching and mentoring the young men whose childhoods closely mirror his own.
As my time with Oscar draws to a close, he tells me about success stories like Marco, a south central native who went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Stanford engineering after completing TXT’s program. Although employed full-time at a company in Pasadena, Marco still lives in south central and volunteers with TXT to mentor its students.
Mentorship from young men like Marco who completed TXT’s program, combined with the access to the Academy’s Garage, inspire current students: “There’s a lot of creativity that happens in [the Garage]. It’s nice to see the students excited, and they feel special about coming here. It feels really good to them to know that this is a welcoming space and that people enjoy having them here, and that they’re part of a bigger community,” Oscar tells me with conviction.
Listening to Oscar, I think about the cyclical nature of life and the power that a generation has to begin new, positive cycles for the generation that follows. I ask him about the most gratifying aspect of his work, and he tells me that watching students like Marco succeed and go on to do good for others is what feeds him: “I love watching them excel. To go above and beyond what I dreamed for them. It’s gratifying to see them come back and say to me that they love what they do. They found their purpose, and they’ll do this for the rest of their lives whether they get paid for it or not.”
To make a difference in the lives of TXT’s students, please consider making a donation today by visiting exploringtech.org. You can follow TXT on social media @Urbantxt.