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River Hill student’s all-female coding nonprofit reaches from Howard County to Morocco

Saniya Vashist, 17, a senior at River Hill High School, created a coding nonprofit, codeHER, to reach middle school girls in Howard County and teach them about computer science, as well as internationally in Morocco.
Saniya Vashist, 17, a senior at River Hill High School, created a coding nonprofit, codeHER, to reach middle school girls in Howard County and teach them about computer science, as well as internationally in Morocco.(Jess Nocera / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When Saniya Vashist was in middle school, she was always scared to take computer coding classes in person, rather than online, because she feared she would be the only girl in the room.

“One day I thought, ‘Why am I scared to sit in a physical classroom?’ I decided I didn’t want other girls to have that obstacle,” said 17-year-old Saniya, who’s now a senior at River Hill High School.

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After feeling she was “never directly exposed to computer science in middle school,” she set out to change that. The summer before her freshman year, Saniya brainstormed an idea to help young women discover the discipline.

Then 13 years old, Saniya used her passion for computer science to start her own nonprofit, codeHER. The Clarksville resident’s idea was small at first: to teach female middle school students coding after school.

CodeHER has since expanded well outside Howard County to two cities in Morocco where young Moroccan women learn about the world of coding. In summer 2018, Saniya and other codeHER members traveled to the North African country for the first time, and this past summer they went back to develop the program further.

When spreading internationally, the “vision of codeHER shifted a little from just teaching girls computer science to teaching girls how to be leaders in their community by using technology and leadership skills,” Saniya said.

Initially called Girls Break Barriers, she registered the program as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in its inaugural year.

As the nonprofit developed and the name changed to codeHER, Saniya came to realize that codeHER “doesn’t just mean physical coding. It means code her to be brave, code her to be confident, code her to be a leader. It can take different angles.”

CodeHER in Howard County

After spending the summer before freshman year crafting her business proposal and emailing her pitch to nearly every county math and science middle school teacher — reaching nearly 300 — Saniya heard back from one, Michael Dennison, a sixth and seventh grade math teacher at Harpers Choice Middle School in Columbia.

“I first thought it was a spam email, and I didn’t give it much thought,” Dennison said.

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But after a second look, he emailed Saniya back because he recognized the need for a program like codeHER.

Computer science and coding “feels like a male-dominated industry ... and girls don’t feel like there’s an opportunity for them,” Dennison said.

His interest inspired Saniya because “here’s a man who is really interested in supporting women in computer science. … It’s important to have men supporting women in things like this, especially at a young age,” she said.

A small group of girls enrolled that fall, learning basic coding from Saniya one day a week after school for an hour. Dennison, serving as the faculty adviser, followed along with the weekly lesson and learned himself.

“The girls picked up on it much quicker than I did," Dennison said. “I got left behind.”

In the first year, Saniya taught coding at Dunloggin, Burleigh Manor and Clarksville middle schools.

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CodeHER has expanded locally, offering the program at various Howard middle schools, as well as library programs in Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

This year, codeHER is looking to revamp the curriculum and purchase robotics equipment. In mid-December, the program will kick off at Ellicott Mills Middle School, with more schools scheduled to join in the late winter.

As more schools participated, Saniya knew she needed help. She recruited other Howard high school female students to become after-school instructors.

According to Saniya, it’s important female high school students, who are interested in computer science, be the instructors to the middle school girls.

“The importance of a codeHER instructor is more than just a teacher, but as a role model, a mentor [and] as a sister," she said.

Aneisa Babkir, a Centennial High graduate who lives in Ellicott City, joined the codeHER operation during her sophomore year. Due to softball and track practice requirements, Baker could not be an after-school instructor. Instead, she joined the marketing team, eventually becoming a part of the seven-member executive team.

CodeHER is an all-female operation, composed of high school and college students. Besides instructors, there is the executive team, a board of directors and a board of advisers.

Babkir, 18, a student at American University pursuing a double major in international studies and psychology, is the chief marketing officer for codeHER, a position she has held since junior year of high school.

A coding novice in the beginning, she has since learned several coding languages and improved her marketing and networking skills.

Babkir said she is heavily involved because “I really believe in the mission of breaking the barriers … we are more than just a nonprofit about girls learning to code. We are empowering young people.

“CodeHER is different because we are focused on empowering young women and [helping them in] achieving their goals, even if it doesn’t include coding.”

Taking codeHER international

A few months after starting codeHER in Howard County, Saniya set her sights on going international and landed the nonprofit in Morocco.

The goal of the Morocco expansion was to find underprivileged young women who spoke English and a school that could provide computers for codeHER to run the coding program, she said.

In 2018, 14 Moroccan girls, ages 15 to 18, enrolled in a 10-day pilot program in Kenitra at the American Language School through the U.S. Embassy’s English Access Microscholarship Program. The program “provides a foundation of English language skills to bright, economically disadvantaged students, primarily aged 13 to 20, in their home countries,” according to the program’s website.

The girls identified a problem in their community and came up with a solution using a form of technology, such as creating an app or website. They also created social media accounts, a business pitch and a business plan.

One group focused on combating homelessness by developing an app that kept track of where homeless people are and whether people wanted to offer their homes as a safe space.

The program ended with a closing ceremony at Kenitra’s city hall, where the girls gave speeches about their projects and codeHER executives also spoke.

This summer, the first week was spent with the same 14 girls learning how to create online business proposals and digital presentations, and practicing interview etiquette.

It’s not efficient for codeHER to travel to Morocco each summer and teach the same program, Saniya said. To keep the program running in the same cities, codeHER plans to train the girls to be equipped to run it themselves.

The CodeHER Baramij Laha Closing Ceremony in Kenitra, Morocco. We are immensely proud of our CodeHER students and leaders for all of their hard work! @ Municipalité de Kenitra

Posted by Codeher on Monday, September 2, 2019

The second week of the summer program was held in Agadir at the American Language Center with 30 participants. Mirroring the prior year, the girls had to solve a problem in their community using technology and also created a business proposal, logo, marketing video and more. At the closing ceremony, the girls received awards and certificates of excellence.

Babkir traveled to Morocco this past summer to help spread codeHER’s mission of helping girls “succeed and achieve their dreams” by providing resources and teaching them skills to become successful.

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Months later, Babkir remains in daily touch with the girls. She enjoyed being exposed to a new culture and meeting people.

On Saniya expanding the nonprofit to Morocco, Dennison said: “I’m not surprised. She has big dreams and goals and I couldn’t be happier for her.”

Saniya plans to study a mix of international relations, computer science and global business in college to eventually work in either the public sector or foreign services, such as the United Nations.

In the beginning, codeHER was a nearly no-cost program, as Howard schools provided the classroom space and computers, and teachers donated an hour of their time each week.

However, to continue the yearly Morocco trips, funding became a necessity.

For the second year of the nonprofit, Saniya sent in an application for the U.S. State Department’s yearly public diplomacy grant. She decided to “go big or home,” she said, and asked for $20,400. She received the grant funding.

She is planning on applying for the same grant for this summer’s Morocco trip. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also provides monthly funding to codeHER.

For this upcoming summer’s trip to Morocco, codeHER wants to develop a mentor program between the students and female leaders in the technology and business sectors, while training the girls from the first year to successfully run their own programs.

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