In April, supermodel Karlie Kloss partnered with the Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp based in New York City, to launch the #KodeWithKarlie scholarship for young women aged 13 to 18.
The winners would receive free tuition to one of the Flatiron Pre-College Academy’s summer courses, Intro to Software Engineering, which Kloss herself took in 2014. To apply, female high school students only needed to record a 60-second video explaining why they want to learn to code — with no previous experience required.
“I think it’s crucial that young women learn to code as early as possible, to ensure that we have a voice and a stake in what the world looks like,” the 22-year-old Victoria's Secret Angel and passionate amateur coder said in a video describing the scholarship.
Although the Kode With Karlie program doesn’t cover housing and travel costs, the two-week class (for which the standard tuition is $1985) is taught in 11 locations around the country.
Twenty-one winners were ultimately chosen from more than 600 submissions. Fusion had the pleasure of getting to know two of them, Leilani Jones and Amanda Southworth, both of whom attended the Flatiron class in Los Angeles earlier this month.
Leilani is a rising junior at one of the largest public schools in Atlanta, where she studies business. This year, she hopes to apply for early entrance to a nearby college, taking classes on campus to simultaneously earn high school and college credit. She’s also looking forward to prom.
Leilani, who knew of Kloss from her frequent appearances in fashion magazines, learned about the Kode With Karlie scholarship from the Victoria's Secret Angel's announcement on YouTube.
“I thought it was really cool she’s doing this for young girls,” Leilani said.
After researching the Flatiron School, she decided to film an application video herself. She’d previously dabbled in “a little bit” of programming, thanks to an entrepreneurship class that integrated coding-based puzzle games. Leilani was out of town when, much earlier than she expected, she received an email telling her she’d won a scholarship — she was “shocked,” in the best way possible.
A true renaissance woman, Leilani aspires to become a forensic scientist, but considers music her “stress reliever.” She loves making beats, and is currently enrolled in a DJ certification program.
To Leilani, the choice to learn to code is a no-brainer, given the centrality of technology in our lives. “Coding is a form of language. It’s a part of our future and we should be willing to learn the dialect — not only to listen, but to be a part of the conversation,” she said.
Before the program began, Leilani expressed her anxiety about getting a handle on programming jargon. “I think it’ll take the first couple of days to get used to the tech terms,” she said. “But once I get familiar with them, I’ll pick things up fast.”
Amanda Southworth hails from Southern California, a two- to five-hour drive from Los Angeles, depending on traffic. “We live near where Coachella happens so we get all the annoying festivalgoers and the heat,” she explains. Like Leilani, she’s an only child.
As a rising high school freshman, Amanda was nervous about her relative youth compared to the other students in the Flatiron class. “I think I’ll be the youngest in there,” she told me. “I’m just 13, going into a place with juniors and seniors. I haven’t started high school yet and these people are, like, veterans.”
Amanda first read about the Kode With Karlie scholarship in a BuzzFeed article. She submitted her application video — in which she sings and plays the ukelele — just hours later.
After that, Amanda checked her email every day for word from Flatiron. Two weeks later, she received a congratulatory message while in class and couldn’t contain her excitement.
“I started screaming and my humanities teacher told me to get out of the classroom. I told her why but she was like, ‘Oh, that’s no excuse.’ It’s a perfect excuse!”
When I asked Amanda how much she likes coding, she corrected me. She doesn’t “like” it. She loves it.
“It’s so cool because it’s making something from scratch. It’s like raising a child to be a successful adult. Really bad analogy, but it’s true!” she said. “You go through the pain, you go through the ups and downs, and in the end, you send out the product and hope it goes well.”
Amanda and Leilani’s Flatiron course began on June 22. They spent the next two weeks — Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — studying the programming language Ruby and creating their very own apps in a coworking space in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. Leilani, visiting L.A for the first time, stayed with a family friend. Amanda found a hotel within walking distance.
Leilani and Amanda were the only two Kode With Karlie scholars in their class of 10 students, which was roughly an even mix of girls and boys.
Though Leilani had expected that the other students would be largely unfamiliar with coding, she soon discovered that their experience levels varied widely. Although this was intimidating, each student was encouraged to work at his or her own level, and her classmates themselves soon proved a valuable resource.
“I’d second guess myself, and ask others to help me,” Leilani said. “They were like, ‘You have it!’ It was confirmation I already had it right.”
Every morning, the students would arrive to find a “to-do,” a fun activity designed to refresh and reinforce the previous day’s work, waiting for them on the board. Then they’d get to work on a new lesson — on, say, data types and variables in Ruby — and pair up with a partner to put what they’d learned into practice. There was also ample opportunity to decompress: the kids were free to explore Venice during their lunch break, and the class took several group trips to the beach, just a few blocks away.
Ruby is a “batteries included” language, with numerous functions, methods, and classes provided for you. That’s what makes it appealingly versatile — but it also means there’s a lot for a novice coder to learn. Leilani credits the class instructors, Jeff Olson and Lana Ramjit, for building her confidence. Patience, she learned, is key.
“Coding is most definitely fun when you know what you’re doing. Anything is fun when you know what you’re doing. But I don’t think coding is easy or a walk in the park,” she said. “You’ll get frustrated and agitated, but you have to be patient. You can’t misspell a word or tag, because that’ll mess things up, but all you have to do is delete that extra letter and you’ll be fine.”
Amanda, too, was pleasantly surprised by Flatiron’s hands-on approach to teaching. She had experimented with Ruby on her own before, and found it frustrating. With the guidance of her instructors, she quickly discovered the common ground it shared with other languages.
“[Jeff and Lana] were really good at helping us,” she said. “They didn’t say, ‘OK, you can look it up on your own.’ They took the time to come to us and explain what we were doing wrong.’”
As she predicted, Amanda did prove to be the youngest student among a group of predominantly upperclassmen, but she nevertheless fit in just fine. Both she and Leilani made friends they plan to keep in touch with.
On the last day of class, the students presented their final projects to their parents. Leilani and a partner devised Guess the Color, a game based on hexadecimals. (Don’t worry: you don’t need to have any idea what that means to play.)
“Normally I get nervous speaking in front of a crowd, but I was tired, and I had worked so hard, I told myself, ‘I’m not going to be nervous, I’m just gonna present — I’ve spent a long time doing this, and I want it to be recognized,’” Leilani said. Their demonstration went great.
Amanda and her group designed a darkly funny quiz, Death By, that predicts the macabre circumstances of a player’s demise. She spearheaded the game’s front-end development. Their final presentation was “nerve-wracking” — the project started malfunctioning at the last minute, but fortunately, they were able to fix the bug in time.
Back at home, Amanda is building an app to help calm those who suffer from anxiety, offering relaxation techniques as well as photos of cute puppies. She hopes you'll see it available for the download in App Store by early August.
Leilani is now working with Flatiron to start a coding program at her high school. “It would put a lot of people in a great place for college and career-wise,” she said.
According to Girls Who Code, a nonprofit whose mission is to “close the gender gap in technology,” only 12% of computer science degrees are conferred to women, although more than half of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded to female students. At 13, Amanda can already attest to the gender imbalance in STEM fields. In her robotics class, 31 of the 35 students are male. She also explores her interest in tech in online forums like Reddit, where she says she’s been made to feel unwelcome as a result of her gender.
“I’ve commented on coding stuff and made some mistakes, and a guy would comment and make mistakes, too, and people would call me out but not him,” she told Fusion. “I think it’ll probably stay this way until girls get enough convincing to actually believe that they can do this.”
Both girls are deeply grateful to the Flatiron School and Karlie Kloss for their experience. “I wish [Kloss] could Skype me and Amanda or something so we could tell her,” Leilani said.
Today, Jones is eager not only to code more herself, but to encourage other young women to do the same.
“They should try it, no ifs, ands, or buts. Definitely. Don’t limit yourself, because that’s limiting your possibilities in life. Coding can get you really far in life — especially for girls. Coding can be frustrating, but as long as you keep at it and work hard, you’ll be good to go."
“I feel anything can change as long as people want it to change. Girls let boys dominate because they feel, well, they already got it. That shouldn’t be the case," she said.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.