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Q&A: Grace Hopper Winner Courtney Thurston

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This year, TASER sponsored five recipients of the Grace Hopper scholarship, named after the programming pioneer who helped develop the earliest computers. The honor recognizes women in technology and covers their costs for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, held in Houston from Oct. 14-16. Here's part two of a five-part series of Q&As with the award winners.

When TASER Grace Hopper scholarship winner Courtney Thurston talks about technology, it's clear that it is not a side hobby. As she puts it, learning to code saved her life. Wikipedia editors mentored her at the age of 10 and pushed her to participate in STEM competitions. These contests let her get her foot in the tech world's door, winning internships and jobs that helped her and her mom pay the bills. Now, Courtney hopes to make education more accessible to low-income and marginalized communities with the two nonprofits she helped launch, Magikstra and Adopt the Future. She is a freshman studying computer engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

TASER: Can you describe the effect that mentorship has had on your life?

Courtney: Neither of my parents are in technology. Nobody that I knew was in technology. Without the internet, specifically Wikipedia, which is where I really met my mentors, I definitely wouldn't be in tech or any kind of STEM. So for me it made a really profound impact. It's the reason I was able to get a better education and enroll in online school because the local community really didn't have any good education options, so I did distance learning from 8th grade all through high school. That was great for meeting my educational needs. Mentorship is crucially important. I think especially if you can do it remotely and have that distance aspect, you can reach really marginalized communities that wouldn't have access to those kinds of people otherwise.

T: Can you tell me more about Adopt the Future?

C: It's a nonprofit that I started to connect underprivileged high school students with sponsors, individual or corporate. It was inspired by the QuestBridge program, which matches low-income high school seniors with full rides at really prestigious colleges, but there's still such an enormous gap. What I was running into as a QuestBridge applicant and watching my friends apply was that if you happen to win, then you get this full ride, but the application process is still extremely expensive. Some of us incurred fees in the couple thousands of dollars because it's $30 here to send SAT scores and another $20 to send ACT scores, and then it's $100 to apply to the university, so if you apply to 10 or 15 schools, suddenly you are paying [$1,500] or $2,000 that your family just doesn't have. So there's still an enormous educational gap and an enormous gap in terms of what people can actually afford to access. Adopt the Future tries to close that gap a little bit more by matching students with individuals or companies that can cover those smaller expenses along the way.

T: And do you see this more philanthropic work intersecting with your interest in tech in a broader way, or are those separate aspects of your life?

C: They're related. I've done all the web development for these projects. But fundamentally I'm an engineer, and I want to do engineering. I don't want to be an activist. They're sort of separate, but my tech skill sets definitely helped.

T: Do you want to talk a little about challenges you've encountered while doing this, thinking about how to get underprivileged students access to better education?

C: One of the things I'm really concerned with is, like I said, I'm a long-time editor of Wikipedia, so I started when I was around 10. But something that I've really noticed as I've grown up is that a lot of our technical articles are really not very accessible. When it actually comes to reading an article or understanding it, there's a lot of unnecessary jargon in very low-level articles on different tech products and programming languages and frameworks and things like that. And I think it sort of speaks to a larger problem in tech — this sort of privilege of having a good education, where a lot of people can't really afford it. And it's almost like you need to have a really great education to begin with to get into tech, and I'm really interested in changing that.

T: The last line of your cover letter is about building a beautiful tomorrow, which is awesome as a goal. What would your utopian society look like 25 or 50 years from now?

C: Access to education both in terms of affordability — so you know free high school, which is already in existence, but better public school programs, free community college — and initiatives to really leverage the resources that we do already have, like Wikipedia. But there's really a huge problem with editor retention and actually writing good quality articles, so I think we need to do a better job with open source, because it's a really powerful tool both in terms of open source software and open source knowledge, but the quality is sometimes depressingly low. The really depressing part of that is that open source tech and open source knowledge is oftentimes what marginalized communities can actually access because they are free and are available a little bit more widely. So for me, my utopia is very education-centric.

T: How does safety relate to these things?

C: I'm really interested in safety-critical systems. That's the reason I'm at Embry-Riddle. My experience is in aerospace, but more broadly I am really just interested in things that have a lot of moving parts and require some really staunch quality control and a lot of safety-critical processes. So a lot of my work has been using unmanned aerial systems and search and rescue — designing drone systems that can find civilians in forests and things like that. It's definitely a big area of interest of mine, and I'm currently an undergrad RA in the field of unmanned systems, so I'm really interested in applications of aerial monitoring for safety.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Courtney Thurston.