In 2013, TripAdvisor software engineer Bill Stitson was a Citizen Teacher volunteer teaching computer programming and coding to students at the Orchard Gardens School in Roxbury, a low-income neighborhood in Boston. The Orchard Gardens school didn’t have enough laptops to go around, and the ones that they did have were in rough shape. One day, after a class with more technical hangups than usual, Stitson and his co-teacher went looking for the school’s computer lab, wondering if they might be able to teach class in there. They found a room with a sign outside that said "Computer Lab." Opening the door, they found tables and chairs, but no computers.
At the time, Stitson had also been teaching summer school courses on coding at a high school in Newton, an affluent suburb of Boston. The students in his summer classes had functional laptops and working wifi connections, among other resources not available to the Boston students. Teaching the same course in two very different school communities made the opportunity gap appear even clearer.
“Most of the students in Newton had some exposure to programming, or their parents were programmers,” said Stitson. “My other students hadn’t heard of coding or programming before. They didn’t know it was a possible career path.”
Despite their lack of resources, the Orchard Gardens students inspired Stitson with their desire to learn, igniting his passion for 21st Century Learning that he has to this day. After attempting to borrow laptops from the TripAdvisor IT department, and trying to crowdsource them through a company-wide email, Stitson and his colleagues pooled their money and bought Chromebooks for the entire class. At the end of that semester, he knew he had to find a sustainable solution to the lack of resources.
Stitson came before the TripAdvisor Charitable Foundation in January 2014. He stood in front of a group of his colleagues, shared the disparities that he witnessed firsthand, and nominated Citizen Schools for a grant to buy laptops and equipment for programming in Massachusetts. Stitson pointed to TripAdvisor’s commitment to serving disadvantaged populations around the world, telling the grant committee that “We don’t have to look that far; there are kids right here in Boston that need our help.” The committee subsequently approved the grant request, and provided hundreds of Chromebooks to Citizen Schools’ Massachusetts classrooms.
Since that presentation in 2014, TripAdvisor’s engagement has been tremendous for middle school students, providing over 1,000 hours of direct mentorship and career connections to 234 students in Boston and Chelsea, Mass. To date, the TripAdvisor Charitable Foundation has given over $550,000 in grants to expand Citizen Schools’ technology and STEM programming, 40 TripAdvisor volunteers have taught 10 apprenticeships - and dedicated over 1,000 volunteer hours - directly impacting the lives of hundreds of students. Their efforts are helping to send low income students on pathways toward success in high school, college, and careers by making classroom learning relevant and inspiring them about future opportunities.
This semester, Stitson is back in the classroom teaching Pencil Code, a program that teaches coding through music, art and games, to students at the Orchard Gardens. Even a few years after his initial volunteering experiences, he’s still struck by the difference in exposure to technology. He still has to teach most of his students some basic computer skills, like copy and paste. But this just fuels his passion for teaching programming and code.
“A lot of students come into class without any exposure to code or programming, and they don’t feel powerful, or they’re embarrassed at their lack of experience,” said Stitson.“Coding offers that instant gratification of seeing your work make something happen on the screen. Those kids come out feeling empowered on the other side of the class. That’s what I live for. That’s why I keep teaching apprenticeships.”
Stitson’s story shows how one employee’s passion can become the catalyst for a meaningful, long-lasting corporate partnership that has profound impact. TripAdvisor fully embodies their mission to inspire employees to volunteer as well as help strengthen human lives and communities. In addition to Citizen Schools, their volunteer service has also impacted many other organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity of Boston, Helen Bamber Foundation, ZanaAfrica, Range of Motion Project, and many more.
In addition, TripAdvisor recently announced a bold commitment of $5 million for humanitarian aid to address the global refugee crisis which greatly impacts our local communities in Massachusetts, especially those in gateway cities, such as Chelsea, Mass. They will also provide volunteer and in-kind support to address key areas of need, such as enabling access to critical information via technology for refugees and supporting resettlement opportunities.
We will be honoring TripAdvisor at our annual WOW!NOW Gala on May 4th at the Seaport Hotel in Boston. Individual Tickets and Sponsorship Opportunities are available - learn more here.