There’s no getting around the unfortunate fact that there is a lack of equity in the tech space. This isn’t to say that diversity isn’t at the forefront of many of Chicago tech leader’s minds, but the truth remains that there are a lot of valuable positions in the tech world that go unpursued. In order to help alleviate the gaps in the technology sector, the University of Illinois-Chicago African American Academic Network launched the Black Tech Scholar Program.
What is the Black Tech Scholar Program?
Originating from honest conversations regarding racial and gender disparities, the program has evolved into a full-fledged alliance between private and public entities. All parties involved are dedicated to presenting young people of color with the opportunity to acquire transferable professional development skills and to gain the opportunity for hands-on, experiential learning.
The goal is to provide new and challenging opportunities for African American students to learn technical and professional skills. Students engage directly with the tech community and gain the tools necessary to pursue careers in today’s workplace, as well as tomorrow’s. By providing these opportunities for the scholars, the program alters the landscape of the tech workforce demographics and creates a more inclusive environment.
But BTS is more than just inclusivity. It is also a program that is geared toward helping the community and providing the students with valuable networking opportunities and professional contacts. The students participate in many exciting projects. From websites to mobile apps, there is always one common theme: helping others. The completed projects are done for community-based organizations, such as NAJWA Dance Corps, Chicago Cultural Alliance, and Smokin’ Spokes Cycling Club.
One of the truly amazing aspects of the Black Tech Scholar program is just how inclusive it is. Scholars are welcomed from any major, not just computer engineering. The goal is to teach a new skill set that wouldn’t normally be gained from any one specific area of study. Participation has included various majors ranging from public health to accounting. As long as students have a desire to learn something new, build a portfolio, and help the Chicago community, then they are welcomed.
“Diversity amongst professional teams is critical to the expansion of Chicago’s tech community,” said Joe Fields, Associate Director of the African American Academic Network at UIC. “The UIC Black Tech Scholars Program not only affords minority students worthwhile chances to learn new skills and obtain professional experience but also provides tech companies access to diverse talent, empowering them to build solutions that best serve the world around us.”
Working directly with professional organizations like Productive Edge, the BTS program has engaged its students with tech experts through job shadowing and a yearly hackathon where the students must work in groups to build something, as well as present it in a professional manner. In the end, not only do the participants learn programming languages, but they also gain confidence in their skills and make valuable friendships. Particularly for Productive Edge, winners of the hackathon are often called back for potential internships.
Currently, the BTS program is in its fifth cohort. More than 44 students have gone through the program and have moved on to bigger and brighter things. Learn more at bts.uic.edu.