From the strawberry fields to computer science

Brian De Anda helps to write programming code as his fellow students look on at the Hartnell College Alisal Campus in Salinas. From left are, De Anda, Daniel Diaz, Thang Fenton, Monse Hernandez and Mateo Sixtos. (Patrick Tehan)

“We’re only one hour away from Silicon Valley, but we might as well be on the other side of the planet,” says Zahi Kanaan-Atallah, dean of advanced technology at Hartnell Community College in Salinas. The college is trying to move farmworkers’ children to a computer science degree in three years, reports Joe Rodriguez in the San Jose Mercury News.

When Mateo Sixtos drives to his computer science classes every weekday, he takes a good, hard look at the strawberry fields he first worked when he was only 10 years old. Even back then, he aced a California state math test, posting college level scores. But the young boy still had to join his parents in the fields to pick “la fruta del diablo” — the devil’s fruit.

“It’s a reminder to me,” Sixtos says, ” if I don’t study, this is where I’m going to end up.”

Sixtos, now 18, and about 30 others are the first students in the Computer Science and Information Technology Bachelor’s Degree in 3 Years program, or CSIT-in-3. Hartnell partnered with Cal State Monterey Bay with funding from a Japanese-American orchid grower.

Andy Matsui, the orchid grower, has given dozens of scholarships to low-income students from Monterey County high schools, but “almost none” earned a degree in four years, he says. Rising tuition forced students to work too many hours or drop out. He decided to fund an accelerated degree program for low-income students, pledging $2.9 million in scholarships for the first three years, or about $30,000 for each student by graduation.

Hartnell computer instructor Joe Welch and Sathya Narayanan, director of  Monterey Bay’s computer science and technology program, came up with a plan. They’d put CSIT students in a supportive, highly structured program at Hartnell, then transition them to upper-division classes at Cal State Monterey Bay.

 Students in the program take the same courses at the same time, do the same assignments, write the same papers and take the same tests.

. . .  A full-time counselor keeps them on track. On “enrichment Fridays,” they share their worries in small support groups.

Instructors hope to persuade Silicon Valley companies to provide paid summer internships. It’s a struggle: Companies usually hire only from elite schools. “I tell them our students will outwork anybody,” says Welch.

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