Breaking Tech Barriers, From Oakland to Berkeley

A Profile of Alejandra Ibarra

Alejandra Ibarra peeked into the window of a classroom in Dwinelle Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Seeing students huddled over notebooks and laptops, the sophomore moved onto the next classroom looking for a quiet place to work. She peered into several more before heading to another floor.

“It can be hard to find a quiet room available when it’s this close to finals,” said the 19-year-old computer science major as she walked past other undergraduate students studying on the hallway floor.  

This small challenge is a welcome change from her earlier days at Castlemont High School. Ibarra remembers a time when she was afraid to go to school.

“It just gets harder when there are fights going on all the time or you’re on lockdown again because something is going on around the neighborhood,” said Ibarra, who grew up in East Oakland.

Castlemont High is one of the most underserved schools in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), where only nine out of every 100 students go onto graduate from college. Primarily serving economically disadvantaged minority students from black and Latino communities, the school has often struggled financially to take care of basic needs. Students lack up-to-date technology in the classroom, educational opportunities and access to newer areas of study like computer science.

Unlike many of her Berkeley classmates, who began coding in middle school, Ibarra got into computer science almost by accident. She didn’t know anything about the subject, but signed up for an AP computer science principles class because she thought it might look good on her college applications.

Her success, however, shows the importance of OUSD’s burgeoning efforts to introduce science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as computer science programs, into its curriculum.  

For Ibarra, one teacher made all the difference.

Ibarra first had a biology class with Claire Shorall, a veteran teacher with seven years experience, in her sophomore year of high school. She enjoyed the course so much that she continued to take two AP courses in her senior year, including the one in computer science.

Ibarra struggled at first, but she said she grew to love the subject once she learned how to code from Shorall. “It’s about thinking analytically and solving more problems,” she said.

Encountering a challenging class for the first time at Castlemont, Ibarra showed up for extra tutoring sessions before and after school with Shorall.

After Shorall took her to a hackathon, a 24-hour event where teams of programmers collaborated on an idea for a mobile app, Ibarra decided to pursue computer science in college.

Ibarra only applied to her dream school, UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. She was accepted in 2015.

Once she got there, she realized what a powerful influence Shorall had been. At Berkeley, she found herself in a student population that was predominantly male and white, a reflection of the broader tech industry.  

Without knowing it, Shorall had helped her break those traditional gender and diversity barriers.

“Ms. Shorall was the one that introduced me and it matters so much that she is a she,” Ibarra said. “It wasn’t this guy who came in, helped me and opened my eyes to the wonderful thing that mostly only guys do.”

While Ibarra hasn’t decided what she will do with her degree when she graduates, she said she hopes to bring computer science to broader and more diverse communities and inspire students in Oakland. Meanwhile, Shorall now works as the city’s first manager of computer science after lobbying to expand career pathways in technology to the rest of the district.

“Oakland is where I come from and this has shaped what I can do now,” said Ibarra. “This is what motivates me to keep going because I want other students to be able to also go to college. I want them to be able to look back at their hometown and be like ‘I want to better this.’”

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