Every fall, dozens of Cisco employees head back to school in under-served middle schools. They are volunteer “Citizen Teachers” and STEM ambassadors with one goal: to help students see how paying attention in class today could lead to some pretty cool careers tomorrow.
These Cisco employees have returned, not as students looking for a refresher course in 7th grade algebra, but to be volunteer “Citizen Teachers,” and as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) ambassadors. Their goal: to help students in underserved middle schools see how paying attention in class today could lead to some pretty cool careers tomorrow.
Cisco’s Kimone Gooden and Mahendra Samarya are two of these Citizen Teacher volunteers. As part of a partnership between Cisco and the nonprofit Citizen Schools, they join more than 120 other Cisco employees in stepping away from their busy jobs for several hours each week to serve as mentors and lead 10-week “apprenticeships” in communities with high drop-out rates. During these apprenticeships, they share subjects they are passionate about – like computer science, film-making, robotics, and marketing – that students might not otherwise be exposed to. In the process, the students will be encouraged to stay engaged, stay in school, and stay on track to graduation.
What would inspire Kimone, a marketing and communications manager, and Mahendra, a software engineer, to leave their busy jobs to teach middle school students? For Kimone, it fulfills a desire to inspire youngsters to dream of things they never dreamed of before. For Mahendra, it’s all about broadening students’ horizons and building confidence in their capabilities.
The work Kimone and Mahendra do ultimately helps Citizen Schools extend the learning day to give students more opportunities to become engaged and excited about learning. If they are, they’re more likely to stay on track to graduate from high school, particularly in communities where high schools have such dismally low graduation rates they’ve been dubbed as “dropout factories.”
Kimone’s workweek, serving as Cisco’s manager of integrated marketing and communication, and co-leader of Cisco’s Connected Women Outreach Pillar, is about as jam-packed as it can get. But she looks forward to the time she can spend in the classroom, “because the opportunity is unbelievably rewarding. The students are so eager, they have so much energy, and they have excitement for what we teach.”
Kimone has been a Citizen Teacher since 2011, when she taught an apprenticeship about blogging at a middle school in Oakland, California, near where she lives. The apprenticeship left such an impact on her students that the school regularly invites her back during “guest week.” “I hear my kids are doing really well,” she says.
For the 2012 school year, she encouraged several members of the Cisco Connected Women’s group to take turns teaching a “Women in Technology” apprenticeship for girls at a school in East San Jose, where more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
“The topics varied each week, from marketing to IT, from branding to project management, depending on each person’s area of expertise. By the end of the apprenticeship, the students had been introduced to 10 different career options.”
The students also visited the Cisco campus to experience a live demonstration of Cisco TelePresence videoconferencing technology. “We put them in different rooms and simulated a meeting via video. They said it was like being on ‘Star Trek,’” Kimone says. “They were so interested in the material and it was an interactive and creative way to engage them.”
The Cisco Connected Women’s goal of introducing STEM to girls was extremely successful, Kimone says, but for the 2013 school year the group’s members will teach a “Technology Everywhere” apprenticeship to both boys and girls at the school in East San Jose.
Mahendra Samarya is a software engineer who normally spends his days at Cisco defining, designing, and implementing networking software. Although he was a tutor in college, he had never taught a class of middle-schoolers before, but was inspired to start after hearing about the Citizen Schools apprenticeship program through a Cisco email newsletter. “I believe students from all walks of life are capable of doing great things, as long as they have opportunities,” he says. “I thought it would be an opportunity to help low-income students explore a new horizon.”
Mahendra taught his apprenticeship at East Palo Alto’s Cesar Chavez Academy, located in an impoverished neighborhood that, by ironic coincidence, lies just across the highway from homes worth more than $8 million.
He wanted to teach something that would capture their attention, so he focused his lessons on how to create apps for mobile phones.
“The students were very excited about the subject, as it was a completely new area for them. It took them some time to become familiar with programming terminology, and initially they struggled, but slowly they came to understand what is involved in creating an app, by researching, designing, and then implementing it. I was most impressed with how we were able to pull it off as a team and create the app.”
He definitely plans to serve again as a Citizen Teacher. “The experience enhanced my leadership and mentoring skills that I can apply to my work.”
For Kimone, volunteering this way has proven to be personally enriching in numerous ways. “I was able to meet and collaborate with many other Citizen Teachers, so my personal network has grown,” she says. “It has also helped me feel more comfortable with public speaking, but most importantly, I believe in the impact Citizen Schools has in closing the achievement gap by closing the opportunity gap. I’m honored to be part of such an important cause. It’s great to work for a company that not only supports my passions but creates opportunities to express them and acknowledges my work in this way.”