The Privilege of a Gap Year as a Black Woman

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My first introduction to coding was in middle school making basic websites and fooling around with HTML and CSS. That also happened to the first time I learnt of Adobe Suite and gained my foundation in use of Photoshop. I used those skills over the years to customize my fandom related Tumblr accounts but never took it seriously. It wasn’t in my plan on how to become a doctor. So I stopped taking electives centered around technology and focused on communication, science, and math.

Then roughly two years ago I made the decision to stop being pre-med, something I should have done sooner, but is another story for another day. That summer I happened to be interning part-time, managing the company website, getting a taste of boutique consulting world and looking to marry the skills I’d gained as a Communication and Anthropology major with my decision to explore careers in business.

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know I’m passionate about the representation of black women. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie. That brought me back to my Tumblr and tinkering with it under to the under to be aesthetically pleasing. I had a grasp of basic HTML and CSS but I knew there was more I could learn. Soon I was determined to further my coding skills. Google and Twitter were my best friends when it came to finding free resources and instructional videos. In my free time, I’d read articles from TechCrunch, HuffPost Tech, and Wired. My nights were devoted to working through Code Academy modules and watching YouTube videos for explanations. I was certain in a year, I’d be wowed by my progress and have a new skill set to boast about.

Well, I returned to school and life happened. Classes, volunteering, work, freelancing, networking, social commitments, family obligations, and all that jazz. I had enrolled in a Computer Science class, but it was too much of a time commitment and there were other courses I need to focus on to fulfill graduation requirements, so I dropped the class. I told myself I’d still follow along with the course syllabus and use the tools I’d gain to continue self-teaching, but life told me to slow my roll. I sat down and realized I was overextending myself.  I had fallen into the same trap that many black women do: thinking we can do everything and be everything because that is what society has told us to do. When the going got tough, I knew something had to give. So I shelved coding and it stayed on that shelf until this year.

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My Passion and My Purpose

This time last year I was taking Branding of Me. We spent a good deal of time talking about your passions, our purpose, emotional intelligence. Ways to navigate the world not trying to live life for our parents or siblings or friends but for ourselves. I remember thinking back to making the decision to not go to medical school and what I wanted to do in life. When Gary, my instructor, asked that question, my answer was simple “to help black women pursue careers at the c-suite level as a consultant.” Actually, my answer was “pursue a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication or Behaviour to help black women pursue careers at the c-suite level as a consultant.” I remember Gary telling me obtaining the Ph.D. was how I’d become a consultant, not necessarily my purpose or passion. That made me pause and question “why do you want a Ph.D.?” Which has been the question I’ve sought to answer for the last year during my gap year.

So I’ve talked to those who are currently pursuing Ph.D.s, those who have left their programs with masters like Cyn from Saving with Sense, those who are currently professors and others who decided to work in the private sector. I’ve also chatted with folks who are working towards a masters degree and don’t see a doctoral degree in their future. Hearing their stories and following useful threads on Twitter related to grad life led me to one conclusion. I don’t really want a Ph.D. In theory, yes it is appealing, just like going to medical school was. But Ph.D. became my default because I still wanted to be Dr. Aitza. But was that title really worth all the debt, long hours, missed the family time I’d have to endure? Nope.

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Once that question was answered, I had another yet another answer to seek during my gap year:  “How do I pursue a career that will enable me to help black women seeking careers at the c-suite level as a consultant?” My mind kept going back to the teenager with box braids and tortoise glasses learning the basics of HTML and CSS and her fascination with technology that was pushed aside far too soon. Once again I found myself looking into ways to marry my love for understanding people and communication and my determination to see black women represented in the workforce with a career.

The Privilege of a Gap Year

I’m so fortunate to have the had the opportunity to do all of this exploration after graduation because my mom allowed me to move back home. Even when I was working part-time and looking for a fulltime job, the comfort of being back home helped with my stress levels. I know many young black women like myself aren’t afforded the same opportunities. Many of us are pushed out of the nest and forced to survive as soon as we hit 18. Even under the best circumstances we face discrimination when it comes to hiring practices, educational opportunities, securing housing, etc etc. Sometimes we have to take what is in front of us to make make it in this country. More often than not, taking time to explore and letting our minds rest can result in a missed opportunity of getting our foot in the door. So I’m not going to tell everyone this is what they should do, because I am aware it not a realistic option for all.

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At the same time, I’m not going to paint this as some kind of magical experience, because it was not that. This last year has been filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Wonders of if I made the wrong decision by not taking the traditional path and having a job with 401K matching and other benefits. Reminders from and arguments with my mom about my decision to not go to medical school, and being forced to understand her worries come from a place of love. Acknowledging from a job security standpoint, her logic makes sense.

The racial disparities in the country are widening. When you take a closer look, you see people like me who the descendants of enslaved Americans making even fewer strides than our black immigrant counterparts. So for her to suggest that I go into a conventional and safe field is not farfetched. It is what African Americans have been encouraging their children to do for decades. It used to be postal jobs, teaching, nursing, or factory work that left you with a pension and union support. I would have a skill set that would always be in demand in America, but I don’t want ,at bare minimum,  $170,000 of student loan debt and to be stuck in America until I’m 35.  Not when there are other fields I can explore if I’m willing to stop being risk adverse and put in some hard work and networking.

Even with all my struggles this last year, I can’t help but feel thankful I had the chance to experience them. Because it has allowed me to step forward in a place that is not coming from fear and impulsiveness, but one of excitement and certainty. Even now, what I’m doing doesn’t make much sense to my mom, but she always says “You can only live your  life for you.”  She has allowed me to do just that since graduation. It is a rather privileged gift from her I could not put a monetary value on because I truly believe it is a priceless experience.

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The Future and Me

Technology is the present and technology is the future. The tech world also has a serious diversity and inclusion problem. It is also an industry that has a lot to offer in terms of career longevity, networking, and never-ending learning. Why not consider a career in technology? It has all the makings to transition into consulting. Not to mention, the tech industry will influence how we learn, receive healthcare, manage our finances, navigate transportation, and deal with a variety of daily tasks. That is what led to dusting off my coding skills and looking to learn more than the basics. In some ways, my drive to learn to code is the same that led me to pursue a formal education in Communication and Anthropology. It’s another way to understand humans, communicate effectively, and be a problem solver.

I’ve committed to #100DaysofCode and have been working my way through freeCodeCamp ‘s Front End Development, signed up to be a beta team member in my fellow Tar Heel Madi Pfaff Edgar’s #CodewithMadi, and local coding boot camp that is 16 weeks. I’m loving the challenges and have connected with some awesome #codenewbies , #pocintech, and those who have been coding longer than I’ve been living.

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I’m not sure what my end goal is. I might become a Front End Developer or maybe I’ll give User Experience Design a chance, but the community building and using all of my skills is exciting. It all feels like a move in the right direction.  I know will one day allow me to fulfill my passion and purpose of getting more black women into c-suite positions.

If you want to follow my journey, feel free to check out #AitzaCodes on Twitter.

Did you take a gap year after undergrad? Are you a woman or PoC in tech? Did you leave your graduate program? Have you found your passion and purpose? I’d love to know more. 

Until Next Time,

Aitza B