Bringing Learning Home: How One Coding Grad Is Making A Difference in Haiti

For many in Haiti, a future in technology can seem like a pipe dream. Designated a third world country and still recovering from its catastrophic earthquake, the island is lacking in sufficient technology and education resources. But that doesn’t mean they’re without innovation, creativity, or passion.

Esterling Accime is proof of that. Growing up in Cite Soleil, an impoverished commune in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Esterling started to teach himself how to code. Later, after coming to the U.S., he took part in the Georgia Tech Coding Boot Camp, which helped him grow as a coder, formalize his skills and launch an amazing career.

And now he’s giving back. While his family and friends in the U.S. were celebrating Thanksgiving, Esterling was giving thanks for a whole different reason: for the opportunity to host a free, two-day coding workshop in the community where he grew up: Cite Soleil, Haiti.

The site of the workshop in Cite Soleil, waiting for the first students to arrive.

Rising up and giving back

Like many who grew up in Cite Soleil, Esterling faced a lot of obstacles. Living off ten dollars a month and often struggling to eat, Esterling worked for a missionary as a translator and she asked how she could help. Esterling asked for a computer because he believed he could learn anything if he could access the internet.

The gift of a computer allowed Esterling to begin to teach himself to code, which led to work as a computer technician. Later, he moved to the U.S. and enrolled in the Georgia Tech Coding Boot Camp. Following graduation, Esterling got a job as a developer at AT&T and then a software engineer at Cox Automotive, where he now works on a team that builds software to facilitate the buying and selling of cars online.

But, Esterling was always drawn to education. “The best way to learn is to be able to teach what you’ve learned,” he said. And Esterling was ready to learn by teaching. He joined the boot camp team as a tutor, and then became a teaching assistant and now lead instructor in the GA Tech Coding Boot Camp.

In June of 2018, Esterling went home to Haiti to attend the Haiti Tech Summit. There, he was encouraged by a growing tech community in Haiti and wanted to use what he’s learned to help his people. Reminded of his childhood growing up in Cite Soleil, and all it took to get where he is today, Esterling realized it was his calling to return to his community and help his people. So, he started to devise plans for a two-day coding workshop in Cite Soleil.

Four months later, and with help from the boot camp team and Georgia Tech, Esterling was ready to go home to Haiti again, this time with a mission.

Putting together the pieces

Esterling touched down in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, November 18 to find Haiti in the midst of a political protest. In celebration of the 215th anniversary of the revolution against the French to end slavery, Haitians took to the streets to protest the political climate. Many people feared violence, and as a result stayed home and businesses shut down, but Esterling did just the opposite.

“As Haitians, we’re used to pushing on and forward despite the obstacles,” he said. It took some time to get the electricity and computers up-and-running for the classroom, but with some help, Esterling made it happen. “There are no obstacles that a little determination and creativity can’t overcome!” he said.

Fittingly, the first day of the workshop fell on Thanksgiving, and even though Port-au-Prince was mostly on lockdown, Esterling wasn’t deterred. “I said I was willing to show up and teach if the students were able to get there,” he said. And his commitment paid off—the class was full of 24 eager adult learners ready to further their education. It was truly something to be thankful for.

A class of dedicated students, eager to learn coding.

When the students walked into the classroom in Cite Soleil, Esterling felt like he was looking in a mirror. “I saw myself being in each student’s shoes. But more than that, I knew that if this didn’t happen, if this wasn’t a success, these students might not have another chance to learn to code,” Esterling said.

He took his past and his experiences and turned it into a teaching moment by sharing his story. “I told them, wherever you’re coming from, I came from that, too. No matter where you come from, you can do this because I did it,” he said.

Watching everything fall into place

Coming from teaching a 24-week boot camp at Georgia Tech, this two-day workshop in Haiti was a huge change. For one thing, the Georgia Tech students simply have more time to learn, research, and do homework, not to mention simple things like consistent electricity. But the abbreviated time and challenges didn’t hinder the Haitian students at all.

“Most of these students didn’t have backgrounds in tech. And they were still asking really smart questions that my students in the U.S. don’t ask,” Esterling said.

Esterling was in awe of how much his students learned in such a short period of time. He was also delighted to find that some of the tricky concepts like JavaScript that can stump even the most dedicated coders had the opposite effect.

Esterling Accime shows a Haitian coder the ropes.

“One student was feeling just okay on the first day. But then on the second day, when we got to JavaScript, his eyes lit up and he got really excited,” Esterling said. “He’s an accountant, and he saw JavaScript as this great way to solve more accounting problems.”

Another thing Esterling noticed (but wasn’t surprised about) was that his Haitian students really relied on collaboration. “At Georgia Tech, collaboration is something we encourage. But in Haiti, everyone works together naturally. It’s a very community-driven place,” Esterling said.

But the most important thing that the students came away with, was the central boot camp philosophy of learning to learn. Since the workshop was only two days, the bulk of their coding education would have to come later. “I didn’t want them to hear the answer from me. I wanted them to be able to know where they can find resources when they want to learn more,” Esterling said. “It’s not about giving them a fish: it’s teaching them to fish.”

At the end of the second day, each student was awarded a certificate of completion, compliments of Georgia Tech Professional Education. But more than that, they came away with the same thing Esterling did when he was given that computer so many years ago: hope for the future.

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