Coding leads refugee to college scholarship

'I never really saw people before who were doing those programs."

Bonito woke up early on Saturday mornings so he could get a ride to computer programming class, along with 30 other high school students over 2-3 shifts. Nancy Mwirotsi picked them up in a car that barely worked, and along the way, they joked that this car would take them to college.

Today, Bonito is a freshman at Iowa State University with a full-tuition scholarship. He is the first in his family to attend a four-year college. It started with those Saturday morning classes at pursuit of Innovation (Pi515), a United Way-funded program that teaches technology to refugee and underserved youth—a program Nancy founded.

In the basement of a church, instructors taught students how to make a basic command on a computer. The lessons evolved into building websites, computer games, and robots.

“I was excited because I saw people who looked like me who were programming things,” Bonito says. “I never really saw people before who were doing those programs, so I was like, ‘Huh, if they’re doing it, I can do it.’ ”

Bonito’s family came to the U.S. from a Tanzanian refugee camp when he was 9, and Bonito took English-language classes from third through eighth grades. His parents, who worked at a meatpacking plant to support their large family, emphasized the importance of education. But Bonito found school boring and didn’t see a future beyond playing soccer.

Pi515 changed all that. Bonito now studies management information systems and cyber security. Nancy is already pushing him to take the next step: apply for internships.

“Pi515 made learning fun,” says Bonito. “Through that experience, I developed an appreciation for education. It ignited that spark.”


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