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Darlene Holland Saw a Gender Gap In STEM Classrooms—Now, She’s Closing It

Written by Molly Forman on Mar 2, 2020

Related content: Outcomes

In Darlene Holland’s childhood home in Haiti, education came first.

It didn’t matter that her family was poor—what they lacked in material possessions, they made up for in motivation. “The only way you get anywhere in life is through education,” Darlene’s mother always said. “No one can take that away from you.”

For Darlene, a STEM teacher and lifelong learner, these words have rung true time and again.

Starting anew in America

Growing up in a homogenous society, Darlene was never defined by racial identity. “People were just people,” she said. “I was always just myself.”

Then, at age 15, she moved to the U.S. and things changed. As a black immigrant woman, Darlene was now a triple minority.

She was also a hard worker—and luckily, that mattered.

Closing the gender gap

“Life in the U.S. wasn’t easy,” said Darlene. “But education was my ticket out of poverty.”

Through passion and perseverance, she received a master’s degree in science education in 2010.

She went on to pursue a career in teaching in cities across the country and noticed something that inspired her next course of action: a lack of women in STEM classrooms. Her future suddenly became clear. “I made it my mission to work on equality, diversity, and inclusion,” she said.

With her resolve set, her next step was to figure out how and when she’d make this happen.

(De)coding the future

In 2018, Darlene stumbled across an ad for the University of Miami Coding Boot Camp powered by Trilogy Education, a 2U, Inc. brand. Eager to expand her STEM education, she enrolled.

Looking back, she considers this to be a pivotal moment in her professional life—but it would take a few months to find out why.

A mission in motion

Toward the end of boot camp, Darlene’s Trilogy career advisor approached her about a part-time teaching position at Girls Who Code (GWC), an organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology.

It was precisely the opportunity Darlene had been waiting for—a way to champion her commitment, at scale. “Instead of trying to get men to see my side of the story as a programmer, I could be an instructor and encourage hundreds of girls to go into computer science,” she said. “I could make an impact.”

Summer 2020 will mark Darlene’s third year of teaching at GWC’s Summer Immersion Program.

From longing to belonging

In boot camp, Darlene constantly battled with the question Am I good enough? “As an educator, I know I’m very good,” she said. “The state has told me, parents have told me, students have told me. But as a programmer, I struggled.”

When faced with new coding exercises, Darlene would often wonder what she was looking at—and how she could possibly make sense of the symbols before her. “It took time,” she said. “But I learned that with enough motivation and persistence I could do it.”

Now, at GWC, Darlene shows budding female coders that they, too, are good enough.

One of her first lessons? Embracing challenges. “We talk about the importance of letting ourselves make mistakes,” said Darlene. “Because if you’re so afraid of failing, you won’t even try.”

Programming with purpose

Intimidated by a largely male-dominated field, some girls come into the classroom saying, “I’m more of a poet or a writer.” But throughout the summer, Darlene teaches her students that women do have a place in computer science.

Every week, GWC hosts field trips to different organizations, including tech companies and coworking spaces. While meeting female role models, students get to see many ways in which their passions may play out. At the end of the day, said Darlene, “GWC doesn’t just focus on coding.” Instead, it presents the question, “How can I incorporate coding into my interests, whatever they may be?”

It’s a question Darlene is grateful to have answered for herself. “Teaching is my life,” she said. “Boot camp helped me merge my passions and become a better educator. Then, it gave me a chance to give back.”

You can’t be what you can’t see

Over seven weeks, Darlene’s students go from being strangers to sisters. They learn new programming languages. They develop fully functioning apps. They pursue passions and conquer fears. And they do it all together.

“On the first day of class, there can be a sense of dread,” said Darlene. “By the last day, there are tears.” Upon completing the Summer Immersion Program, many students realize I want to pursue a future in the STEM field. I can do this. I will do this. No matter my background, it’s not impossible.

For proof, they need only look to the front of the classroom.