I moved to the U.S. from Trinidad when I was two years old. Once we were settled in Brooklyn, my parents, like many immigrating to this country seeking the American Dream, encouraged my sisters and me to work hard and seize new opportunities that would lead to bright and successful futures, despite the distractions surrounding the neighborhood we lived in.

Now, at 19, I have a full-time tech job and was recently walking the red carpet at the movie premier of the award-nominated film Hidden Figures. Foregoing fear in favor of resolve, my American Dream is being realized.

With constant support from my family, the best decision I made for my personal and professional growth was enrolling in IBM’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH). P-TECH is a new education model designed for youth currently underrepresented in colleges, such as minority and economically disadvantaged students. It’s a six-year program focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – subjects that were completely foreign to me, but vital to learn in this new digital age.

I graduated the program early – in four and a half years – with my high school diploma, associate degree in STEM (at no cost) and internship experience at IBM. I am now a Digital Commerce Design Developer at IBM, where I apply my coding skill to websites.

I had always known the mark I wanted to make on the world, but did not have the confidence in my abilities to help me believe my dream could become a reality.

P-TECH strengthened my confidence and provided me with mentors to help me thrive. I learned the importance of understanding computers, fostered new skills in coding and programming, and embraced the challenge of leadership, serving as class president.

IBM also introduced me to a new role model. Three, in fact.

It started with an email. IBM invited me to attend the Hidden Figures movie premiere, and naturally, I was honored and thrilled to attend.

–‘Hidden Figures’ is the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee–

Movies often serve as an escape, where fantasy worlds, eras in history or inspirational true stories come to life on screen. Too often, however, women of color have been secondary to the plot and seldom in meaningful lead roles. As a black woman, I rarely found many to be relatable.

Hidden Figures changed that for me.

While watching the film, I was inspired by the character of Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spencer. While we come from different worlds, we both have an innate drive to master a skill in the new world of technology, in spite of the challenges. It was a surreal feeling, watching what looked like my own life played out on screen.

Dorothy’s mastery of mathematics and application of IBM’s computing power led to NASA’s first successful space mission. She was a real-life risk-taker, boundary-breaker, and difference maker –who looked like me.

Seeing Dorothy and the two other unsung heroes of the film – Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson – succeed in the very field I want to pursue ignited even stronger motivation for my ultimate career goals.

I see now that STEM careers are real options regardless of gender, background, or race. P-TECH helped me learn the skills to achieve success, and Hidden Figures gave me, and countless others, role models on the big screen who inspire us to dream big.

 

Janiel Richards is a 19-year-old digital commerce design developer at IBM. She is a graduate of IBM’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School, also known as P-TECH.