Like many of our volunteers, Cody Wild found Community Network through the Internet. “I googled ‘tech volunteering San Francisco.’ I thought about wanting to volunteer because I helped my grandmother with something, and then I thought, ‘Oh, this would be fun.’” And, so far, for Cody, blessed with a love of talking to computers and talking to humans, it has been fun. It has also been successful.
Finding time in her very busy life, Cody started tutoring at the Curry Senior Center just as the holidays got rolling. This is a tumultuous time to try to build rapport with learners. “I was in the lab for a week and then away for a few weeks and then returned and was away again.” Nevertheless, in her three months of volunteering at the center, she has established several relationships and gained a following among the learners. A few weeks ago, her schedule changed, and more than one learner rearranged their lives so they could keep meeting with Cody.
I sat down with Cody to talk about her experience. She told me about Lidiya, one of her regulars. Lidiya struggles with insomnia and knew that listening to music would help her get to sleep and stay asleep. She had an iPod and a MP3 player but did not know how to use either.
That has changed. “On Monday, Lidiya told me, ‘Yeah, I had all the steps written down so I was able to do this on my own at the library,'” says Cody. Lidiya is becoming proficient at finding music on the Internet and uploading songs. She also reports that she has started to sleep better.
Cody is something of a techie. Soon she will have a Master of Science and Analytics degree from USF — a cutting-edge field and a cutting-edge program. As good as she is with computers, she is also very good at teaching people computers. “I think that it is less about knowledge and where to go to get knowledge. For example, I’m working with someone, and she is trying to set up a Windows Media Player. I have not used that program before. I have no idea how to do that. But technology is like learning a language. It is learning what things should sound like. I think, ‘Oh, that should be under the File menu.’ Or I think, ‘If here is an error message, I should click it.’ It is about expectation and understanding the interface. Yes. When you are tutoring, you are doing things at different levels, but, ultimately, the skills are similar. How do I look at a system I’ve never seen before and have some intuition about where things are going to be and how they should behave. My advantage is not that I know it ahead of time. It is that I can figure it out faster. Then I can explain it to them. [When tutoring] you are still learning new things. and then the challenge is figuring out how to explain them.”
When pressed, she gives some excellent advice about tutoring. “You have to regress a lot of steps. You start out saying, ‘Go to this link.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh. Ok. Go to the box. Click on the box. Copy the information in the box.’ You break things down into smaller steps. It can be frustrating, sure. But you just have to go slow enough. One thing that I’ve found interesting is that everyone brings a little book and they write down how to do everything. Every time they come, they write down all the instructions. But tutoring is not that different from programming. Computers can’t intuit unless they are taught to. So the basic task of programming is breaking things up into very concrete clear steps that completely describe what you want the computer to do. In a certain way it’s not that different a mentality from tutoring. Figuring out how to break up a problem into discreet, clear steps that you can articulate well, that don’t assume knowledge on the part of the people you are giving instructions to. That’s it. I’m not saying that people are computers, but, in this context, if you can talk to computers, you can probably talk to people who don’t know how to talk to computers.”
Cody is an excellent teacher, but she is also very honest about some of the reasons she enjoys volunteering. “You get to be the coolest kid. It’s an ego boost. Sure, I’m helping people, but also suddenly I get to be the person who knows how all the things work. That’s not nothing. Here in San Francisco we have jobs and situations that have been optimized so much, so many people have worked on it so that even if you work very hard to improve it, you will get a tiny percentage better. Sure. For Google, 1 percent is huge, but as an individual, it’s kind of great to be a part of something where, though a moderate amount of effort you can get a huge return. Sometimes it’s big — teaching people how to do use a program. Sometimes it’s just trying to figure out how to get information about some German violinist off a web page written in Japanese. That’s fun. That’s successful.”
When asked how she thinks about teaching digital tech to seniors specifically, she says, “It’s like learning a language. If you learn it when you are young, you just pick it up. That’s like lots of young people and technology. We just grew up with it and never consciously thought about learning it. I can’t tell you when I learned what is in the File menu. I can’t remember. So this is like learning a language late in life. If you grew up with it, it seems weird that people have to really consciously learn it.”
She also says, “Working with seniors is really nice. This is a city dominated by young people. It’s nice to have a context to be around people with a different life. They talk all the time, and it’s an experience that it would be hard to get if I didn’t volunteer. I’d like to think that, on a personal level, tutoring is making me more patient. It helps you acknowledge that other people might have something useful to say, even if they don’t do what you do, if they don’t know tech.”
And then she makes a great pitch for other younger people to volunteer with CTN. “What I like about this volunteer experience is that I just moved across the country from another city. I’ve got my university program and internships, but I don’t really have a network here and so, even though this isn’t everything, it’s a nice way to find a way to be around people, to connect with people. This city draws in so many people from all over who don’t know anyone, it seems like this would be a great fit for all these younger people. It’s good to get to know the community”
In July, after a year of accelerated classes — each course is condensed into only seven weeks — Cody will be finished with her degree. All of us at CTN and Curry Senior Center have our fingers crossed that she stays in the Bay Area and finds a job that allows her a few hours a week to keep working with Liydia and the other learners in the lab, that she will continue to be a part of our network.
To quote Toby Shorts, the Community Program Supervisor at Curry Community Center, “I am pro-Cody in all things.”