Emelia Guadarama is in the Bitwise apprenticeship program, which gives those who may not be able financially to enter the tech field an opportunity to learn the necessary skills and earning money while doing so. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

This story is the fifth of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

America’s reputation is derived from its core value as a land of opportunity – where all who are willing to work hard can get ahead and join the middle class.

To the contrary, economic mobility is actually very hard to achieve for certain parts of the population because of race, ethnicity, educational inequality and government policies, past and present, that perpetuate the status quo.

Too many young people, especially in marginalized groups and communities, have educational experiences that derail whatever ambitions they may harbor, and then fail.

Minority kids are more likely not to succeed.

Emelia Guadarama, an apprentice at Bitwise Industries, thinks she knows why. At 39 years old, an age when most people are usually set in their career, she dares to enter a tech career.

“The biggest thing that a lot of kids, at least growing up, and even kids who were like my nephews and children of my friends, have this idea that because you grew up in an underrepresented community, that you’re not as smart as other kids, and that the kids from the richer neighborhoods are getting a better education than you,” Guadarama said. “There is that stigma, and kids still feel that way.”

This sentiment of inadequacy is present in most of the stories shared by people who participated in the “Broken Ladder” series. Education plays a major part – maybe because of a teacher who failed to look closely enough, or about the administrator who suspended the child or simply, a lack of connection between the child and the school system.

Still, the result is a profound doubt in one’s self and ability, plus a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that affects everything else.

Emelia Guadarama knows that too well.

Born and raised in Fresno and smaller farming towns like Mendota and Firebaugh, Guadarama has never lived outside of California.

She says she grew up “definitely a laborer type,” surrounded by people who work in farming and ag. People like her, Guadarama said, are looked down on.

Not really given a lot of chances

“I’ve seen the kids in the schools from those small farming towns, and they’re such scrappy kids; they are so smart, but they’re not really given a lot of chances.”

Her parents died when she was very young, and she was raised by her grandparents who worked in the farms and cotton gins. “So it was really tough work,” she said, “especially because cotton gins were starting to shut down in the Central California area.”

Her grandpa would take her to the fields to help them pick grapes, to “give us a taste of what that is like, what hard labor is,” she said. “They never said, ‘you don’t want to do this.’ It was never like shunned or anything, but it was like, ‘this is how hard we work, and, you could, or you don’t have to, but this is what we do.’”

Guadarama said she always had a curiosity for computers, and her grandmother saved up and bought one for her when she was in middle school. “So she saw that I was interested in computer technology, but she didn’t really know how to foster it,” Guadarama said.

In high school, she was taken out of Spanish class and put into a computer science class. “When I got there, I thought it was really fun; we played games on the computers, and then I noticed that there were only boys in the class,” Guadarama said. “I started to feel very insecure, very unsafe, and I just said, ‘Can I quit?’ I really didn’t want to be in that class after all.”

She went back to Spanish. This became a pattern that she followed for the next two decades – knowing what she wanted but lacking the confidence to follow through with it.

“I went to City (Fresno City College) for a year and a half, and mostly, all the classes I took were like art and film,” Guadarama said. “I got to a point where I was like, ‘I really don’t know what I want to do with my life. I don’t know if I want to go to an art school. It’s so expensive. It didn’t seem accessible.’ And, it also was just the kind of stuff I wanted to keep as a hobby; that was fun for me and not likely to get me a job.”

So she left the community college and started working in mall jobs – “Bodyworks, Macy’s – things like that” until she got an opportunity at a bridal shop. “I was a terrible salesperson there, and so they moved me to the alterations room because I have a sewing machine and knew how to sew a little bit.”

She loved the job but realized its limitations. “I had worked as far as I thought I could; I just had to really think, ‘Gosh, I’m getting older, to be 39 this year. Do I really want to be there?’ So I started thinking about a career path. What would work best for me where I’m at in my life?”

Guadarama said she couldn’t return to college to get a computer science degree and started looking into coding boot camps and talking to friends who are working in technology, including a friend who is a WordPress developer with Bitwise. “I expressed interest in getting into coding and becoming a developer, too, and she was like, ’Please just join Bitwise; I will help you every step of the way.”

‘It has really profoundly changed my life’

Even after she got into the program, the self-doubt persisted. “About a week or two into the workforce training program, I was riding my bike, feeling very doubtful. feeling a lot of imposter syndrome, ‘Do I even really belong here? Am I doing the right thing for myself?’”

She struggled. “I had a hard time reaching out for help, which is maybe why I didn’t finish college. I didn’t know what direction to go.” Bitwise offered her a way forward; the counselors told her she belonged and that it was OK to ask for help.

“I reached out to some friends; I reached out to that particular friend, and she was there for me and like, it was just so fortuitous, or serendipitous, it really feels like the universe brought me here for sure,” she said.

“This is something I’ve talked about with my peers who are also in the apprenticeship,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions, like, ‘We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t believe that we were capable of doing this, if they didn’t see something in us to be here.’”

Bitwise apprentices were encouraged to talk openly about their fears and insecurities. “That we can be open about it has really been the best part for me, and it keeps me going, and it keeps me motivated to want to learn and do my best in the apprenticeship,” she said.

“It has changed my life in a way that I couldn’t even have imagined,” Guadarama says of the apprenticeship. “It has really profoundly changed my life and the way I look at myself.”

Now, she finally feels she has found herself. “I feel so proud to say, ‘Yeah, I’m 39, and I’m starting a career in tech.’ It feels good, and it makes me feel good to talk about it with my friends and my family.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.