SWAG on 6: iPrep Academy's Maria Mejia

At iPrep Academy, a public magnet high school, all students are issued laptops and they all know how to use them. Now, thanks to Maria Mejia, more and more students at the school have gone beyond just using, they’re programming computers as well.

“I’m very proud to be able to say that, you know, I’ve helped influence other girls to get into stem fields,” Maria said. “I’ve convinced a few girls to consider engineering as a degree, I’ve convinced a few others to just take a computer science class.”

A senior, Maria looked around in 10th grade and saw talented, smart girls who felt intimidated by computer science, which fits the national trend. In the United States university system, only 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees go to women. So Maria fought back by founding her school’s chapter of the Girls Who Code club.

“She’s made girls interested in computer science, she’s made me interested in computer science!” said Lisa Hauser, a math teacher at the school and one of Maria’s mentors.

Maria simply saw a need, found a way to do something about it, and in the process, made a huge impact on her classmates.

“So I feel like she has been someone that’s been very inspirational, very influential in what I want to do as a career, too, and she’s just been an empowering person,” said Tasha Acosta, who plans to study engineering at FSU.

She’s not alone. Girls Who Code has led directly to several of Maria’s classmates now considering engineering as a college major. Yislen Felipes is thinking of pursuing computer programming at the University of Florida.

“I’ve found that I have, I’m capable of doing it and I like doing it because I like math and I have Maria to thank for that, for making me realize that,” Yislen said.

When she first started the club, Maria says there was pushback from boys who didn’t understand why it was necessary.

“We’re a minority, we’re a minority in the stem fields, and that’s the reason for girls who code because you need to help those people,” Maria explained.

Maria also organized an event called Code Art Miami. It raised enough money to fund a scholarship in coding for a female student at Miami-Dade College. She won the Silver Knight award for her efforts. Richly deserved, says Hauser.

“The 9th graders, the 10th graders are joining girls who code, they feel like it’s something they might be interested in doing whereas I think if Maria hadn’t been here and Maria hadn’t pushed to start girls who code, it would still be an all boys club,” Hauser said.

Maria will study computer science next year at prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts, and says she will never lose the impulse to help others.

“Just always reach out and offer your services to someone who needs them because you never know when you might need them back,” Maria said.

Sounds like a code, a code to live by.

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