Engineering senior Natalie Melo had never seen anyone in the tech industry who looked like her. That changed when she toured the country meeting high-profile Latina leaders in tech — and starred in a documentary series in the process.
Roadtrip Nation’s 13th season, entitled “Code Trip,” will stream online and on PBS this fall and will feature Melo, along with two other student coders from underrepresented backgrounds, as they visited 16 states in an RV to meet with tech leaders from similar backgrounds.
“We know that computer science careers are just booming, but not everybody is actually represented in the careers in the field,” senior program manager of Roadtrip Nation Megan Dester said. “So we want to help young people understand what these jobs are actually like and help young people picture themselves in these careers, even when they might not see many role models who look like them.”
This theme was what initially drew Melo to apply for the roadtrip. Growing up in Malden, Massachusetts, Melo was one of three daughters born to immigrant parents who had just come from Brazil with only $60 in their pockets. In high school, Melo took her first computer science class, where she was the only girl and only student of color in a class of 30.
Her experience seeing the lack of diversity in computer science made this Roadtrip Nation opportunity even more attractive to her.
“I just thought it would be really cool to meet people who could give me some insight, meet people that looked a little more like me,” Melo said. “You don’t see many people of color in the tech industry or engineering.”
Melo says she sees this phenomenon across academic fields as well. Even in the computer science department at Penn, Melo feels underrepresented by gender and color.
“I’ve never seen a role model in computer science,” Melo said. “Most of the professors are male, and it shouldn’t make that much of a difference because they’re all amazing, but when you see someone who’s more like you, I guess, you see yourself in that role.”
Melo was certainly able to see herself in Laura Gomez, the founder and CEO of tech company Atipica. Gomez immigrated with her family from Mexico as a child and, like Melo, was supported by her mother, who cleaned houses for a living.
But, in an industry in which tee-shirts and jeans are the norm, Gomez’s high heels, tattoo and perfectly blown-out hair were almost equally inspiring to Melo.
“You can look like anyone,” Melo said. “I can look weird and crazy, but I’m still smart and can still pursue tech. Just because I look a certain way, doesn’t mean I can’t be smart.”
Filmer and field producer Craig Polesovsky said living in the RV, he had the opportunity to get to know Melo and to watch her grow over the four weeks. Her warmth and relatability played a significant role in why they chose her to participate on the trip.
“Part of watching the show is living vicariously through the roadtrippers,” Polesovsky said. “Who knows how many people watching are sons and daughters of immigrant families and they’re gonna look at Natalie, like, ‘You know what? They’re going to go for it, maybe I should, too.’”
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