Notre Dame alumna creates new opportunities for students through coding
Siobhan Loughney | Friday, October 23, 2020
Having followed a unique path of study during her time at Notre Dame, Alexandra Sejdinaj, a graduate of the class of 2015 and co-founder of South Bend Code School (SBCS), has set out to help local students forge their own paths through code.
During her junior year of college, Sejdinaj, who had been studying in the pre-professional track with plans of becoming a doctor, had a rather impactful meeting with her advisor. When she confessed that she had not been enjoying her classes, Sejdinaj’s advisor told her that her undergrad education should be spent studying something she enjoyed.
“I felt like that is what everyone did — you kind of buckle down, study the things that are required of you and then you get this dream career,” Sejdinaj said. “To me, medicine was a dream career because I wanted to help people.”
It was not long before Sejdinaj found another way to help people.
That year, she changed her major to English and began tutoring in South Bend high schools. Sejdinaj said it was through tutoring that she saw an issue that needed to be addressed — many high school seniors were deciding not to attend college. Some found that college was not the right fit for them, and others were feeling discouraged from applying, whether they faced financial constraints or the challenges of navigating the process as a first-generation student.
“I did a quick Google search of what careers are available without a college degree, and coding was the first thing that came up,” she said. “I didn’t want the 17 and 18-year-olds I was meeting to feel like their opportunities were suddenly cut off post graduation, and so I started teaching myself how to code.”
Soon thereafter, Sejdinaj and her two co-founders started SBCS, offering weekly coding classes for students ages seven through 18 years old. With about 15 students, none of whom had any prior coding experience, the first class began in the summer of 2015 and concluded with a presentation of the students’ work.
“Four of the web pages that they built were actually civic apps,” Sejdinaj said. “So they were dedicated towards supporting non-violence in the city of South Bend.”
The 23 web applications presented showed that the students shared Sejdinaj’s desire to help people, she said.
Typically, the classes consist of small groups of students all learning one coding language, and in a normal year, the South Bend Code School would be partnering with Indiana and Michigan schools to enhance educational offerings in computer science. Students can register online for weekly classes, and there are scholarships available to make the programs accessible to more students.
Like any school, the South Bend Code School has had to make adjustments to keep its students and teachers safe and healthy during the pandemic. Classes have become virtual, yet collaborative. The students work with their instructors and peers to develop several projects, maintaining the mission of the school.
“We like letting kids be able to express themselves through technology,” Sejdinaj said. “We want them to build progress that they’re passionate about when coding languages that they’re interested in, and our instructors help them to figure out which coding languages best match their interests.”
Women and minorities are underrepresented in the field of computer science, but by helping students to find their passions through coding, Sejdinaj said she hopes to create a more inclusive and encouraging environment.
“For so many of our students, before the program, they never saw themselves as coders because they didn’t think they fit what the stereotypical image of a coder is — they aren’t white and they aren’t a male,” Sejdinaj said.
Sejdinaj said she has seen many students fall in love with coding, while the classes have helped others to build the courage to pursue other dreams of theirs. One of her students had kept secret her dream of being an architect, but then took action to make her dream come true.
“She didn’t think that it was possible for her to do that, and so she went through our program and all of a sudden she was emailing Notre Dame professors in the architecture department trying to see if they can tell her what she needs to learn to be able to get there,” Sejdinaj said.
Moments like these show Sejdinaj that she has accomplished exactly what she set out to do: help people. The ingenuity and drive she exhibited in teaching herself how to code and co-founding the South Bend Code School has translated into success for her students.
“We will have students who suddenly realize that this is a passion of theirs, and that then unlocks new doors for them,” Sejdinaj said. “It has definitely been a full circle moment of getting to see that this has been my way of being able to help people.”