Drop in to an after-school coding class at South Bend Code School, and you’ll find a distinct start-up vibe. Their location at the downtown South Bend Technology Resource Center has an open floor plan, with laptops set up on tables and whiteboards covered in sticky notes to track tasks and progress.
“You’ll see our students, even seven-year-olds, writing out what their goals are for the project they are working on,” says co-founder Alexandra “Alex” (Liggins) Sejdinaj ’15. “It looks adorable, but they are also doing amazing work to build out the ideas and visions they have.”
It’s all part of South Bend Code School’s mission of making technology education more equitable and accessible. Even for kids as young as seven, who learn foundational coding concepts and problem solving by building their own websites and online games. Sejdinaj and her two co-founders, her husband, Alex Sejdinaj, and Chris Frederick, started Code School in 2015, offering after-school coding classes for kids and teens aged 7-18.
Code, or the language that computers use to complete tasks, is an integral part of everyday life, from Google searches to video games to the checkout system at a grocery store. Sejdinaj thinks of coding as a “great equalizer,” because it offers the potential for career growth, skill-building, and fun.
“I’ve seen so many bright minds really succeed in coding, when they haven’t felt like they have had that opportunity elsewhere — someone who doesn’t feel like the traditional academic environment serves them well,” she says. “Coding is also super open-ended in what you want to build or learn. There is a different coding language depending on what your end goal is, whether you’re wanting to build a website or program a calendar or build a video game.”
The teens in Code School classes have been using the virtual reality (VR) equipment to create their own virtual reality video games. All the technology equipment, from everyday laptops to the high-tech VR tools, is provided for the students – another key element to making the programming accessible.
“They just have to bring themselves,” says Sejdinaj, who was named one of the 2020 Michiana Forty Under 40 by the South Bend Regional Chamber and Young Professionals Network South Bend.
After finding success with their South Bend location, Code School expanded to other cities in Indiana, including Bloomington, Elkhart, and Ft. Wayne. They also offer scholarships for students who might not be able to afford the classes.
Down the road, Sejdinaj says they have plans to expand into more cities in the region, as well as partner with more schools to bring coding opportunities into more classrooms and help teachers implement state computer science education requirements. Both of Sejdinaj’s co-founders have worked in information technology at Notre Dame, and since creating South Bend Code School, the trio has also formed two other companies: Code Works, a digital product studio, and GiveGrove, a fundraising platform for nonprofits.
“When I talk to different entrepreneurs, I hear a lot of people say how scary it was for them to start off, not knowing if it’s going to work out or not. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel that way to me — it felt like, ‘What do you have to lose by trying this?’” she says. “Notre Dame’s environment really helped to foster that attitude for me. I can still remember being on campus and how it was encouraged to forge your own path and make a difference. It was constantly talked about, among my friends, as well as professors. You wanted to make sure that you were also doing your part.”
Sejdinaj started as a preprofessional studies major at Notre Dame, and, at first, thought that going to medical school and becoming a doctor was going to be her path to making a difference. But when she wasn’t enjoying the premed classes, her advisor suggested she hone in on the courses she enjoyed and major in that, so she switched to English. Then, while tutoring South Bend high school students, she noticed how students who weren’t planning on going to college perceived a lack of opportunities for themselves post-graduation. The idea for Code School was born out of wanting to help those students — Sejdinaj had figured out how her new career path would help others.
“All three [of our companies] being so mission-focused is the biggest motivator,” she says. “With Code School, being able to help kids learn; with Code Works, to be able to solve technology needs for an entrepreneur or a company; and then with GiveGrove, being able to help nonprofits succeed in their mission by making it easier for them to fundraise. All three feel really great, and I get to do it all with my husband, as well as a really great team.”