Though Flora Koussemian didn’t arrive in the US knowing much English, the knowledge she did come with was far more important. She knew she wanted to go to college somewhere she could get a reliable education. She knew she loved math and science — particularly physics and renewable energy — and that she wanted to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. And she knew that her interests, coupled with her determination, could have a lasting effect on the well-being of her homeland.
Flora was 18 when she came to the United States to go to college. Born and raised in Chad, she grew up speaking French. “At this point in Chad not many people have access to electricity,” she explains. “That limits them a lot. Flora knew that one day, with the right education, she might go back to Chad and help put solar and wind farms on unused land in the desert.
When Flora arrived in Western Massachusetts she enrolled at a language institute and, after a semester of intensive English classes, she enrolled in Greenfield Community College’s engineering program. “When I got to GCC I was just freaking out about the whole thing,” she remembers. “Language was still such a barrier for me.”
Still, within months, Flora had stepped into leadership. She joined the robotics club and became a Peer Tutor and a Student Orientation Leader — a role she took on because she “knew what new students were feeling” and it was her way of telling them, “If I can do it, you can do it too.”
When GCC’s internship coordinator, Bob Barba, met Flora, he knew this: ”She is one of those rare students who is not afraid to ask for help.” Because of this, he pointed her to Hack.Diversity, a competitive internship program in Boston that works with high-performing students – predominantly Black or Latinx – interested in launching careers in tech.
Tori Goyette, Hack.Diversity’s Senior Community Manager, can attest to the program’s rigor: “The biggest barrier for students is that they must come in with a grounding in technology,” she shares, “We require multiple references, an essay, transcripts, a resume, an interview, and a coding assessment for those interested in software engineering. Folks have to demonstrate their readiness.”
Tori says that when she first met Flora, she recognized a woman who “takes leaps” — someone who “puts themselves into spaces and communities where they can be helped by directly helping others.” Flora’s cohort was further along in their coding education and still, Tori could tell she was prime for the program — a person who doesn’t shy away from hard work.
Regardless of the barriers, Flora says those first meetings in Boston were well worth her efforts. “All these other fellows in the program were in almost the same situation as me — interested in the same thing and looking for ways to get out in the field. It made me feel like this was for me.”
Desperate to understand what it felt like to work in the engineering field, Flora says “I applied for an internship because I just needed to know — how does that feel when you are out of the classroom and in the real world?”
When COVID hit in March, this was the one question that almost didn’t get answered. In the middle of interviewing at tech companies around Boston, Flora watched as organizations began retracting their internships. Bob Barba saw what was happening, so he immediately stepped in.
One of the first organizations Bob called was Common Media, an IT and Web Design company in Greenfield because he knew Kristi Ceccarossi, their CEO, was aligned with Hack.Diversity’s mission.
Within weeks, Flora became Common Media’s first intern. “When I found Common Media I knew it was small enough that my work would matter and people would listen to me,” she shares, “that they wouldn’t be too big to take care of me, especially during a pandemic.”
Flora also says that Kristi was the first one from the organization to call her. “That meant a LOT to me— she is the CEO and yet she never made me feel like she is higher than or better than me. Instead, she immediately offered herself as a mentor along my journey.”
Kristi also knew she could be very frank with Flora about what it means to be a minority in the industry. “As a queer woman from a working class background, I have personal experience being the only person in the room that looks like me, that comes from a place like where I’ve come from. Flora and I have spent a lot of time talking about that, the ways in which those differences come up, how to navigate them and, ideally, how to use your identity as a source of power.”
Kristi and the team at Common Media involved Flora in designing her own internship — building an experience around her own wants, needs and goals. “Not only did I intern there” says Flora, “but I got to trace a path for any intern that comes after me.”
Tracing paths is one of Flora Koussemian’s strengths. This young woman from Chad is now at UMass Amherst, on her way to getting a BS in electrical engineering. “She’s just one of those students who is so gratifying to work with,” says Bob, “With a little support she always makes a great leap.”
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