In the conclusion of this two-part article, Jamillah Seifullah – a teacher at New York’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) – tells the story of her journey from poverty to the corporate world and eventually to teaching.
Part Two: One Educator’s Journey
Before I became a teacher, I was a software engineer at a major telecom company. I began my college experience at Borough of Manhattan Community College and after completing my degree, I transferred to The City College of New York – a four-year CUNY school. As I completed my undergraduate degree, I looked into what fields were lucrative for a bright young math major. Computer programming and the back rooms of analytics and technology on Wall Street were two that interested me. I was made an offer in both fields. At P-TECH, students take the content courses any New York State high school student must take, but they also take Workplace Learning where the soft skills of an information technology (IT) career are taught. Our school is STEM focused, giving them a competitive background for any field they choose to pursue. I wish P-TECH existed when I was in high school. As the kids say, I would have “killed it!” It was not until much later in life that I realized STEM had given me unique options.
I remember being at an awards dinner while I was an undergraduate. We were seated by department, and since no one else showed up for mathematics, I was sitting at a table alone. I am sure I presented a sad picture. I looked around, considered my options, and was determined not to waste the opportunity. I randomly sat at a nearby table, and immediately felt intimidated. Here I was, a young black woman from the South Bronx, sitting at a table of important business people from backgrounds that I assumed were nothing like my own. Although I was outside of my comfort zone, I started talking to the man next to me. It turned out we went to the same high school! He introduced me to his wife Christine, who was a vice president at a major telecom company. I charmed her with my wit, and she told me to call her. I called, but she never called me back. Nevertheless, I was determined to succeed. I knew this was my chance for a real shot out of poverty.
I had left my illustrious job as a cashier at J.C. Penney to go to college when I found out
I was going to be a mom. I was on welfare and took out a small student loan to live. I was the oldest of six children, the first person in my immediate family to go to college, and responsible for helping my mom financially. My dad was a drug addict and out of the picture. I was determined, and called Christine the telecom executive for months. She finally called me back with three offers, and I began a paid internship shortly after that.
During my internship, three men who worked near me took me under their wings and mentored me (shout-out to mentors!). They taught me about stocks, how to invest 16 percent of my pay in my 401(k) every week and forget about it (Thanks, Dave!), and how to dress to be taken seriously. I also was advised to wear my afro “normally,” which meant straighten it (Jim, I forgive you). Whenever I told someone what I did for a living, they would respond: “You don’t look like a software engineer!” That response made a huge impression upon me, as I was one of only two African-Americans in my department, and the only African-American woman for a while.
One of my mentors informed me that the CEO was a City College alumnus and that he had spoken to students there recently. My mentor half-jokingly said I should contact the CEO, so I did via email. The CEO responded that he wanted to meet me. I was horrified. I emailed Christine, and requested she coach me for the meeting. The CEO was a white male millionaire for goodness sake, running a Fortune 500 company! The CEO and I met for 45 minutes, and it was amazing. He told me that he had grown up in The Bronx, and that he’d beaten up nerds like me in school. He was very down to earth. I left that meeting with a new perspective on building relationships and making sure to have the skills to take advantage of new opportunities.
I also left that meeting with the CEO’s personal support for me to go anywhere in the company I wanted. I chose Information Technology. With the CEO’s recommendation, I was hired as a computer programmer. I was in the IT department for eight years before leaving to pursue what I believe is my purpose: educating our youth. Knowing that IBM has created a partnership that affords a similar experience to so many students, and that I am a part of having this model be successful, brings my work full circle.
Jamillah Seifullah is a former software engineer, landscape architect and mother who teaches at New York’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH).