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The City Journals

Innovative We Are Makers technology program brings area refugees into the 21st century

Feb 03, 2017 11:36AM ● By Brian Shaw

A teacher helps a student. (US Department of Education)

By Brian Shaw | [email protected]


After many discussions centered on how refugees can become involved in the rapidly changing and emerging tech sector, an idea was hatched in the offices of the Utah Office of Economic Development. 


Starting out with just one community and one company, the We Are Makers program began with a simple mission: connect today's emerging technology companies and their programs to a sizable refugee population in South Salt Lake and its surrounding areas. 


“We started this project about two years ago in response to frequent requests by refugee organizations for more tech orientated training as well as noticing how quickly individuals, particularly youth, were becoming connected to and proficient with smart phones,” said Michael Pekarske, Outreach and Initiatives Officer for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. 


From the point at which the program launched as a 20-week pilot course until now, We Are Makers has changed lives, according to Pekarske. Refugees from war-torn, ravaged countries like Sudan, Bhutan and Burma have learned through their continuing education efforts that they too can now connect to the 21st century in ways they never thought possible.  


Companies were quick to jump on, too, said Pekarske. At first, one company taught a one-hour course to 15 Bhutanese children on coding. 


However, things didn't go as smooth in the pilot program as the economic planners had hoped, he added. “Lots of lessons were learned during this time, in particular that to keep the youths’ attention we had to add additional engaging content,” said Pekarske. “For example, the company started deconstructing their own website, or a version of it, to show the inner workings, even though it was at that time beyond the students’ abilities.” 


From that point forward, the program grew after taking a few lumps. In its next iteration, We Are Makers expanded to include six refugee communities in South Salt Lake and even more businesses became involved. “Additionally, we expanded to four companies each leading a separate month of the 20-week course and added another hour of STEM-related activities,” said Pekarske. 


The program also attracted new refugees and, according to Pekarske, “quickly developed a really long waiting list of students for future courses.” In addition to the courses already being offered to these refugees, a college professor taught film making and Goldman Sachs and Adobe provided two separate robotics classes to pique the students’ interests. 


Of the 42 students—all of whom completed their course curriculum and graduated—six were offered tech internships, Pekarske added. In addition, he said the program was able to pair 12 students with a professional mentor. 


Currently, the We Are Makers program is blossoming, according to Pekarske. Now serving 78 students, the program — which is co-sponsored by Goldman Sachs, The Utah Refugee Education and Training Center, the Utah Asian Foundation, The Mastery Academy and Salt Lake County, among others — reaches out into 13 refugee communities, teaching kids and adults alike new offerings of courses such as brain building, intro to coding, video game design, web development and IT careers. 


From these offerings, the program expects it will make these students employable for years to come, giving these refugees a chance to give something back to those companies who helped them succeed in the first place.