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Northwestern CS, YWCA Advance ‘Tech Lab’ Initiative

Emma Alexander, Sarah Van Wart, and student tutors are supporting efforts toward more equitable communities

YW Tech Lab
Susan Engel of Hope Productions Films produced a film featuring the YWCA Evanston/North Shore YW Tech Lab for the 2023 YWomen Leadership Celebration.

An enduring partnership between Northwestern Engineering’s Emma Alexander and Sarah Van Wart and YWCA Evanston/North Shore strives to create a more diverse, inclusive, and vibrant community of women in technology through the YW Tech Lab economic empowerment training program.

Supported by Northwestern’s Office of Neighborhood and Community Relations, the collaboration earned a Racial Equity and Community Partnership grant in 2022 and 2023, a program designed to help sustain existing, mutually beneficial collaborations between Northwestern faculty, staff, students, and community-based organizations that address the root causes of racial inequities and work toward structural change.

Part of a national alliance with, YWCA USA, and YWCA Madison, the YW Tech Lab is run locally by YWCA Evanston/North Shore and Oakton Community College. The free, 16-week, virtual coding class provides intensive technical training in web development fundamentals and is structured to prepare graduates for entry-level employment as front-end user interface developers.

The YW Tech Lab program continues to evolve and grow each year with the guidance of the YWCA Women in Tech Council, who serve as role models and foster corporate partnership pipelines to help YW Tech Lab graduates secure internships and employment in tech.

Alexander and Van Wart, the latter an adjunct assistant professor of computer science at Northwestern Engineering who joined the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2022 as an assistant professor, are both council members.

Emma Alexander“We’ve accomplished a number of really exciting milestones. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve tried a lot, and we’re finding out what works and what doesn’t,” said Alexander, assistant professor of computer science and (by courtesy) electrical and computer engineering. “We’re slowly streamlining all of our processes and we’re always adjusting as we build this support ecosystem.”

In November, the YW Tech Lab was featured as the program highlight at the 2023 YWomen Leadership Celebration, an annual fundraiser for YWCA Evanston/North Shore that recognizes leaders in the community for their commitment to women’s advancement and racial justice.

“None of this would be possible without the power of community,” said Kristin Drake, economic advancement program director at YWCA Evanston/North Shore.

The YW Tech Lab collaboration includes three components.

2023 YWomen Leadership Celebration
2023 YWomen Leadership CelebrationAn annual fundraiser for YWCA Evanston/North Shore, the 2023 event raised more than $200,000 to support services like the YW Tech Lab, the domestic violence shelter, and family support center.Genie Lemieux/Evanston Photographic Studios

Tutoring Program

A cohort of YW Tech Lab students graduated from the program in December. Ten new students joined the YW Tech Lab for the current session running January to May.

YW Tech Lab graduate Anita Perkins had no experience with website development prior to joining the program.

Anita Perkins“I was looking to make a career change after working in the insurance industry for more than 15 years. I didn't know what that change looked like, but I knew I wanted to work in an atmosphere where I could be more creative,” said Perkins, who in July started a full-time position as a business consultant and solution manager with Bosch. “After taking the first two courses at Oakton, it was like a light bulb went on in my head — this is what I'm looking for. I was still working full-time. I'm a mom. I'm a wife. But because I was enjoying it, it wasn't work to me.”

Alexander coordinates a group of Northwestern student tutors who support the YW Tech Lab participants as they progress through the Oakton courses. Modeled after the Peer Mentor program, Northwestern students and alumni offer guidance, explain technical concepts, and encourage perseverance through one-on-one tutoring sessions, Slack messages, and an email-based Q&A system.

Jason Huang“The YW Tech Lab program is an amazing first step opportunity for those interested in career switches into tech, and it's really important to have tutors help fill in the gaps,” said Jason Huang (WCAS ’23), who joined the tutor team in 2021. “It's difficult for the Oakton instructors to dedicate time toward all the roadblocks that can pop up for students.”

Huang noted that the students are highly motivated but may initially be discouraged or overwhelmed by the course.

“Most students I met with had very limited experience using computers, so I could help a lot with course content and computer basics,” said Huang, who earned a degree in computer science from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “This level of individual attention is definitely challenging in a course setting, so having tutors is crucial for the Oakton students.”

Huang learned how to personalize his teaching-style to meet the needs of each YW Tech Lab student.

“I definitely improved my skills in explaining and teaching,” Huang said. “When I started working with Oakton students, I realized that I couldn’t skip over or assume prerequisite knowledge. I got better at breaking down ideas and communicating.”

The program tutor team also includes Ellen Tomlins, a second-year student in computer science at Northwestern Engineering, and Sarah Tani (’22), who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in linguistics from Weinberg.

Expanding education pathways

Through a generous sponsorship from Google, graduates of the YW Tech Lab program can opt to continue their practical learning through participation in Coursera’s Google Professional Certificates in data analytics, project management, and UX design.

“The Women in Tech Council felt that this type of student-led, supplemental skill-building would be a valuable transition from the traditional classroom setting into the full independence and empowerment that we want for women seeking new kinds of employment,” Alexander said.

In December, two YW Tech Lab graduates were the first to complete the six-course project management certificate alongside Huang, who worked his way through the courses to pilot Northwestern’s academic support and wraparound services for YW Tech Lab students pursuing the certificates. To celebrate, the students met with a group of project managers on Zoom to discuss how to translate what they learned to the job market.

“We want students to connect directly with people employed in these fields,” Alexander said. “Now that the students have gone through the course work, they can plug back in with the Women in Tech Council and talk with them about what the Coursera material looks like in practice and how it shows up on the job.”

Anna DamratoskiAnna Damratoski, who joined the Northwestern tutor team in July, will support students participating in Coursera’s seven-course Google UX Design Professional Certificate.

“It has truly been a rewarding experience to engage with students from different paths of life and see them grow together,” said Damratoski, a student in mechanical engineering with a concentration in robotics who is also pursuing minors in computer science and psychology and a Segal Design Certificate. “I can’t wait to see where this program will take them.”

Web Apprenticeship Group

Through the Portfolio Group and Web Development Apprenticeship Program, YW Tech Lab graduates join weekly virtual meetings with Van Wart and Esther Whang (WCAS ’21) for continuing professional development and experiential learning. Whang graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a minor in Asian American studies from Weinberg.

Web apprentices have also had the opportunity to work with local, minority-owned business clients on the entire lifecycle of designing and building a website — conceptualizing the project, assessing client needs, iteratively refining the website, responding to feedback, and deploying the website.

A member of Google’s Tech Equity Collective program with a background in linguistics and education, Monique Succeed joined the Portfolio Group and Web Apprenticeship Group in December 2022.

“We are a collective of people striving to be excellent that came together with like interests to support each other,” said Succeed, who is currently a full-time marketing specialist fellow at UX consulting and training agency Center Centre. “Sarah, Kristin, and the YWCA staff saw our need and believed in us as a group and individually. We needed them. They created the space for us to work on actual websites that we modified, enhanced, and built in about five months. This program helped me tremendously.”

In July 2023, the Web Development Apprenticeship team launched a completely revamped website for The Aux, a commercial hub in Evanston dedicated to healing, wellness, and racial equity.

“The website that our students developed amazed me,” Drake said. “Our students made the goals of the Aux leadership come to life.”

YW Tech Lab



Successfully completed the YW Tech Lab since the program launched in 2021



Within 12 months of graduating, 65 percent of the participants continued their education, changed careers, or reported improvements in their current position

Building a support ecosystem

Since the YW Tech Lab launched in 2021, 67 students have completed the program — within 12 months of graduating, 65 percent of the participants continued their education, changed careers, or reported improvements in their current position.

A key goal of the Northwestern, YWCA, Women in Tech Council team is to build a sustainable pipeline from the YW Tech Lab’s education pathways to the job market.

Kristin Drake“We strive to place our students into fulfilling positions, ensuring that they're in healthy environments with an organization aligned with our mindset and mission of equity and valuing diversity,” Drake said.

As the YW Tech Lab program advances and adapts to meet the needs of new cohorts and the growing community of program alumni, Alexander is inspired by the community’s drive to continue learning together.

“The power of this group of smart, hard-working people coming together is amazing,” Alexander said. “I really think they could tackle anything. They’re incredible.”