Even as a new student to the University of Texas at Austin, computer science major Karnika Choudhury has a strong desire to teach others how to code. The 18-year-old understands that not every student has the opportunity to code while in school, so she set out with Unite & Inspire to bridge that gap. She’s volunteered more than 600 hours teaching youth and students with learning disabilities how to code, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What inspires you to volunteer?
What inspires me to volunteer the most are the results of my volunteering, the impact that what I do has on other people. For example, I do a lot of coding and help special needs individuals work through their own code and get through all of the errors to see the results they want. When they finally click “run” and I see their faces light up, it’s really inspiring how happy they are with their accomplishment.
What I’m doing is really inspiring someone else to continue coding and helping them develop their interest. I feel like that’s what keeps me going. I love it when I can see for myself that what I’m doing is genuinely making a difference. Just a little bit of my time is helping someone pave their own career path and build skills that they’ll need in the future.
Describe your volunteer role with Unite & Inspire.
Initially, I found Unite & Inspire when they were advertising an internship during my freshman year. I was like, “okay, this seems cool.” They eventually developed their coding team. I really liked coding and I knew that I’ve wanted to pursue computer science since freshman year of high school. This was before the COVID-19 pandemic, when we used to host our in-person library sessions – where you go to your public library and an adult actually teaches everyone how to code, and the kids go around and help them with debugging and other things.
But Unite & Inspire has been so persistent with continuing a lot of educational resources and activities during COVID. That really helped me keep my morale up with some kind of normalcy in my life. I kept getting to volunteer and help people and that’s when we got to teach special needs individuals how to code in different languages. We started with block-based languages like Scratch and Microsoft Arcade, and slowly moved into coding with Python and HTML. Now we’re doing a little bit more of growing digital skills like photo editing, video editing and website building.
With our coding camps, I help kids of a lot of different ages. I have students anywhere from ages 5 to 22 so I get to help teach people who are older than me. It’s really cool working with people of so many different ages.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part of my work is just knowing that I grew up with so many different privileges – like going to an amazing public school with amazing teachers who taught me coding – and now I get to pay it forward to people who didn’t have those same opportunities.
From those with lower incomes, students who don’t go to schools that offer coding classes and even special needs individuals, I’m really grateful to work with all of them. It’s so fun teaching other people and watching them experience the same kind of epiphanies I had when I was learning all of this.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I think I learned two things. One is patience and how to be empathetic and understanding of other people’s struggles. I know that I have my own pace of learning and coding, but you can’t really teach well if you’re teaching at your own pace. You have to understand what your students need and design everything around that. With my special needs students, I’ve found that explaining things in relatable ways and through everyday objects they know is helpful. And the second thing I’ve learned is definitely just self-growth.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
One thing that I’m really excited about is continuing to partner with folks at Texana and teach students with special needs how to code. We’re also bringing back the library sessions where we taught at public libraries so we get to reach a lot more people. We’re also teaching Java at Cinco Ranch Library this summer so I’m really excited for that. We’ve been prepping and I’m writing out the curriculum and developing slides for presenting.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
I think volunteering is so important to everyone because of how it changes your outlook on life. When I started volunteering, I was a freshman in high school. At that age I think we tend to be more self-centered and try to navigate everything. It’s really easy to get lost in all of that. So when you start volunteering and helping other people, not only do you become more aware of this entire world outside of you that needs your help, but also you get to tap a side of you that maybe you didn’t know about before.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I would want people to understand that any self-doubt you have shouldn’t hold you back. When I had to teach coding, I was still learning things myself and I was scared because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I wasn’t sure that I was qualified. I would encourage people to just take that first step and that they can really make a difference. It doesn’t matter how strong your skills are, it matters that you’re willing to show up and help. Everything will fall into place, all you have to do is take that first step.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Karnika? Find local volunteer opportunities.