Life-changing access: Why Verizon Innovative Learning matters to me

By: Ayana Byrd

How next-gen tech, digital access and mentorship support students in STEM enrichment programs

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Campers Ryan Butler, Sidney Tackett and Layla Vannoy; coach Samantha Villegas; credits: Anthony Jordon Jr., Tania Fernandez, Eric Ross

Since 2015, the Verizon Innovative Learning Young Men of Color and Young Rural Women programs have been inspiring middle school students to discover unique opportunities in STEM, making alternate career paths that were once a dream, a reality. During three weeks in the summer and once monthly on Saturdays throughout the school year, these future leaders — many who attend under-resourced schools — gain project-based STEM learning experiences, from instruction on how to build apps, to lectures from leaders in the field, to providing them with the chance to apply their knowledge and figure out solutions to real world problems.

Soon even more students will be able to benefit from the programs, as this year, Verizon adds nine more college campuses (bringing the total to 49) and increases the capacity of participating students from 3,700 to more than 4,500. A new mentorship initiative means that each of those students will be paired with a mentor to help deepen their connection with STEM and the community. This expansion is not a surprise if you look at the numbers: young men are 92 percent more interested in attending a four-year college once they have participated in the program; 94 percent of young women say they are more confident after program completion; and there’s an overall 98 percent increase in interest in STEM subjects among all participants.

Numbers are powerful — but to really understand the life-changing experience of access to innovative, next-gen technology, it’s best to hear from the people who know it best. Here, students, program directors and mentors share why these Verizon Innovative Learning offerings matter to them.

Ryan Butler; credit: Anthony Jordon Jr.

“Going here influenced me to become an electrical engineer. Now I know about this big huge world of technology and I want to learn more about it.”

Ryan Butler, student, Morgan State University (Baltimore, Maryland)

Kennedy Joyner and Alivia Evans; credit: June Evans

“When the girls begin the summer program, most of them are shy and uncomfortable with the science and technology portion of the curriculum. However, when they see how applying design thinking allows them to create new things, a light bulb turns on and they begin to blossom. All of a sudden the stigma that science and math is ‘hard’ goes away and what they focus on is their ability to create and innovate. By the end of the summer camp, the girls are super proud of the prototype they made and can’t wait to present their product at the Verizon Innovative Learning Showcase.”

June Evans, director, Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Prince George’s Community College (Largo, Maryland)

Sidney Tackett and Layla Vannoy; credit: Tania Fernandez

“Now I don’t feel as alone as I used to. I’m more open to people. I take chances and I’m willing to learn new stuff.”

Layla Vannoy, student, Big Sandy Technical Community College (Prestonsburg, Kentucky)

“They may have it in their minds what they want to do, but because they don’t see people like themselves in those positions, they don’t think it’s something they can reach. When they have this opportunity to see people who look like them in positions that they’ve dreamed about being in, then it clicks for them.” 

LaDawn Partlow, program director, Morgan State University (Baltimore, Maryland)

Danielle Amos; credit: Tania Fernandez

“I never thought that I could be a NASA engineer because that just seemed way too crazy. I’ve always been told, ‘Oh, that’s a boy’s job. You can’t do that.’ [Now] stuff like that makes me want to do it more.”

Danielle Amos, student, Patrick Henry Community College (Martinsville, Virginia)

Samantha Villegas; credit: Eric Ross

“The program is amazing because it gives the students who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance an opportunity to access incredible resources. And the mentor component is a blessing for them — it’s an extra community support to nurture their development. One standout for me was when the girls and I wrote a letter of encouragement to our future selves. It was a moment of reflection and a reminder to be kind to our minds.”

Samantha Villegas, mentor, Prince George’s Community College (Largo, Maryland)

“They are not only exposed to technology in STEM-related fields, but STEM processionals come in and lead lectures — it makes STEM feel more real when you can see people who look like you doing these jobs. Also, we teach young people to understand their culture, to learn that historically people of color have contributed to and in many ways created the field of STEM. We have these larger conversations around what does it mean to be a part of the STEM profession and what does it mean to be a part of a legacy of people who have created STEM and contributed in significant ways? We ask them, how can you not see yourself in that which you created?”

Kofi LeNiles, coordinator of logistics Young Men of Color program, Howard University (Washington, D.C.)

Keon Jones; credit: Anthony Jordon Jr.

“At first, whenever we had computer classes in school I wasn’t the greatest at them. Once I started coming here, I learned about designing apps. I went back to school and they were soon doing the same thing. It was way easier and I didn’t have to constantly raise my hand for help.”

Keon Jones, student, Morgan State University (Baltimore, Maryland)

“There’s no other camp like this one. Of course we know that STEM is important, but these girls also have the opportunity to share ideas and learn in a safe space with nothing but girls. They thrive, especially when they’re given a prompt on a certain issue like climate change or overpopulation — and apply the technology they’re learning to that specific challenge. You can see their confidence building from the first day they arrive.”

Veronica Castillo, interim manager of high school programs and enrollment, Austin Community College (Austin, Texas)

Chloe Taylor; credit: Tania Fernandez

“A really cool thing is being a part of a group of girls that can eventually, or even now, change the world.”

Chloe Taylor, student, Patrick Henry Community College (Martinsville, Virginia)

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