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One girl’s social transformation via Verizon Innovative Learning

For C.J. Parker, who was bullied for being smart, connecting with girls who love tech and science led to a personal evolution.

C.J. Parker works with littleBits technology.

By: Ruth Gallogly

Initially, Cora Joyce “C.J.” Parker didn’t want to attend Verizon Innovative Learning. “It took a little convincing because I’m not really a social person,” she says, peering through boxy black glasses. The seventh grader is busy snapping wires and sensors together from a littleBits program.

Her dad, Mitchell Parker, wasn’t about to let his daughter off the hook without offering a bit of wisdom. “I told her this program would only help her in the future,” Mitchell shares, before taking C.J. home for the day. He cited the program’s focus on technology and science, two subjects the A-student really loves. Reluctantly, C.J. agreed to give Verizon Innovative Learning a try, but with one caveat. “If this doesn't work out, I'm leaving,” she recalls telling her father.

When C.J. arrived at the three-week program held at Roane State Community College’s Cumberland campus, nestled in the rolling hills surrounding Crossville, Tennessee, she immediately made friends. The girls clicked with C.J.’s interests and shared her sense of humor. “You could have this really, really girly girl and this super tomboy girl,” she says, enthusiastically describing her fellow participants, “and they could bond over their love for math or their love for building.”

 

C.J. cleans up a model puppy created in the 3D printer lab.

Being bullied at school

Verizon Innovative Learning knows this is a crucial time to reach girls. One of the program’s goals is to connect middle school girls in under-resourced communities to new opportunities and bridge the gender gap, by nurturing their love of STEM. Studies show that middle school is when kids give up on STEM if their interest isn’t encouraged. Verizon Innovative Learning is combating that by providing hands-on STEM learning experiences with cutting edge technology such as devices, 3D printing and augmented and virtual reality.

Also, program director Holly Hanson uses Verizon connections, and some from her time in the aerospace industry, to introduce the girls to engineering professors, NASA employees and founders of tech start-ups.

For C.J.—who already looks like the animator, editor and voice actor she aspires to become with her short jet-black hair and ripped black jeans—Verizon Innovative Learning has been transformative. When she came to the program last summer, she says she was at the bottom of the social hierarchy at school. Her father, an attentive man with a bushy beard whose love for his daughter shines bright, reveals that C.J. had become reserved because she was getting bullied at school. “They’ll make fun of her because she’s smart,” he says, but thanks to the confidence she gained in the program, “the way she's presenting herself, the way she's addressing people” has changed.

 

C.J., Emily Cooper (center) and Morgan Parsons head to class.

Learning to rock public speaking

The change is evident as C.J. walks down the sun-drenched halls at Roane State on her way to design coding class. She laughs with friends. She appears confident and happy, at home in her skin. The 12-year-old credits some of her new vibe to learning presentation skills for the program’s final project. The girls team up to create an invention or solution to address one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and present it to everyone, including their parents. Prior to improving her public speaking, C.J. mumbled during demonstrations.

She’s from a rural area where it’s quiet and “almost nobody in Jamestown talks loud,” she says, but “dang, did [the teacher] get into our skulls that we could not mumble. When I talked, I did not turn my head away. I kept eye contact and I made sure they understood what I said.”

 

AR and VR instructor Matt Waters teaches C.J. about drones.

Shifting the social hierarchy and finding self-respect

C.J. realizes the importance of exposing girls to female role models in STEM and cutting-edge technology like drones. But she’s also aware of how the program helps her achieve her dreams, not just because of the STEM involved in animation, video and sound editing, but with understanding how to set up a home recording studio and potentially 3D print the logo from her YouTube channel to sell as merchandise. This is big for a girl who is “the only one out of my siblings that have thought of going to college,” C.J. shares. When she graduates, she’ll be the first person in her immediate family with a college degree, aside from her grandmother who recently went back to school to become a lab technician.

Mitchell notices something else about C.J. “Her self-respect has gone through the roof,” he says. While C.J. has always had strong opinions, Mitchell notes, now she’s secure in those opinions while respecting those of others. These changes also influence her role in her school’s social hierarchy.

“I'm not supposed to tell anybody,” her dad says, excited to share C.J.’s accomplishments, “but she's been made co-captain of her soccer team because of the way she interacts with the other players. She doesn't even have to be asked, she points out things politely and helps her teammates. Comparing the C.J. of today to the C.J. before the program, he says: “She was an introvert and now she's more of an extrovert.”

As for C.J., who was uncertain about attending Verizon Innovative Learning, one summer in the program wasn’t enough. She returned this summer for a second time. “I came back...because the farther I got into [the technology] the more I was like, ‘This is fun!’” she says.

Learn how Verizon Innovative Learning is helping kids have a brighter future by providing under-resourced students with free technology, free access and hands-on learning experiences at verizoninnovativelearning.com.

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