Fostering Community in a Virtual World

Fostering Community in a Virtual World

Most Code Haven mentors fall into the routine shortly after the semester begins: organization-wide mentor meetings on Sunday evenings at the Mann Center on Hillhouse Avenue, then, later in the week, they arrive at the bus stop with their fellow mentors with just enough time to catch a ride to their school. On the way there, mentors exchange worries about the unending stream of due dates from their computer science classes; on the way back, they try to discern the meaning of the newest middle school slang ("When they say Code Haven 'slaps'…that's a good thing, right?"). Tomorrow afternoon, the mentors will see each other again when they hike up East Rock and have a pizza picnic at the top.

But, what happens when the ongoing global pandemic relegates all of these events to become virtual? The person they would sit next to at every mentor meeting or would eat dinner with after our Sunday night meetings is 1,000 miles away taking classes remotely. New mentors have to find a way to somewhat organically meet their classroom peers who live beyond the walls of their residential college where they've been quarantining for the first two weeks of college. Is it still possible to create a meaningful community of people who are passionate about service and computer science education? Code Haven Board wouldn't take no for an answer.

Virtual Engagement with Our Mission and Curriculum

During our in-person meetings, our biggest focus was to both explain logistics and curricular details, while also driving home our mission of inclusively increasing access to computer science. We might start the meeting off with a reading on the importance of computer science education at a young age, then follow up with a discussion. Activities like these were crucial to instill this sense of caring for the young computer science minds, but they also brought mentors together in an incredibly unique way that helped us to craft our special community within the club.

While still exploring new options for how we will meaningfully translate these meetings to a virtual platform (mass orders of chips and guac for our mentors will, unfortunately, have to wait until next year), we have found that these important, mission-driven discussions can still occur over Zoom and continue to have a profound effect on our mentors. While in breakout rooms at our first mentor meeting, we discussed amongst our peers the best strategy to use when trying to engage the kids, embracing the inevitable technical difficulties, and the better structure to learning for these students we would be meeting in just a couple of days. Our mentors faced these topics head-on and provided strategies to each other that I've found myself implementing in class already.

Creating a Supportive, Fun Environment

Code Haven mentors are incredibly dedicated to their work with the students they teach, and we are so fortunate to see the culmination of their efforts in our students' smiling faces at the end of the year and the tremendous projects they have built. To celebrate the accomplishments of our mentors, we, as a board, take it upon ourselves to plan events that will facilitate community-building as well as a "haven" of our own for mentors to take a break from their problem sets and essays. As we go virtual, we have already begun planning a variety of online events for mentors, and we are fortunate enough to have a plethora of options for online games, virtual escape rooms, and scavenger hunts that have been published due to the pandemic.

One example of an event we have planned this semester to form a community despite the impediment of being virtual was our "Initialization" for new mentors. This exciting evening occurs annually for those who have just joined Code Haven that year. We struggled initially on how we would convert a night full of bonding to an online format. However, we discovered the incredibly successful formula of Scratch-themed Zoom avatars, Google Maps Streetview, and very precise breakout room procedures. We sent our mentors on a scavenger hunt throughout New Haven with their groups while completing some challenges scattered throughout. By the end of the night, mentors were already trading inside jokes and exasperations about their classes. Even virtually, the Code Haven community lives on, perhaps even stronger than before.

Holding Each Other Accountable

When I began on the Code Haven Board as Mentor Manager, my job description was just to simply track attendance and communicate between the board and the mentors. I was comfortable in this role, but I knew I wanted to contribute more to the Code Haven mission than sending angry emails about attendance. I decided to refocus my job to incorporate more of our mission into my work. I needed mentors to know that the ramifications of their absence from a meeting weren't limited to missing the curriculum details for that week: they would be missing a chance to integrate themselves into our supportive community and to deepen their understanding of the important work they were doing every week.

This change went beyond adjusting my email style (though possibly correlated with the influx of GIFs in my notes), I attended brainstorming sessions with our presidents on including meaningful material on computer science education during our mentor meetings. I took on meetings with the Events team to plan Initialization and other social events that would bring together the community. With this heightened responsibility I gave myself, I had to be better about holding mentors accountable and conveying the weight of our work in the classroom to them. While the Google Spreadsheets Documentation and I have become all too familiar with each other this year as I track attendance, training completions, classes mentors are taking, amongst other things, I am so grateful to be able to a part of a Code Haven community that this year's board crafted so perfectly with such talented, kind people.

What Happens Next

While we continue to hope that we will not have to plan for virtual years beyond this one, we, as a board, are so pleased with the efforts from our mentors to continue working with us as we pursue our mission to teach our middle school students how exciting computer science can be. As we begin our first week of classes, we cannot wait to see the projects our students create, with a powerful community of mentors supporting, not only our younger students, but each other, as well.