Computer CORE (Community OutReach and Education): A Nonprofit Partner for Teaching Computer Skills and Opening Doors for Immigrants
by Nagia Khaldi Kurabi and Donna Walker James
People come to us lost and don’t know what to do—we show them how to succeed.
Computer CORE (Community OutReach and Education) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1999 in Alexandria with the mission of preparing underserved adults statewide in Virginia to pursue their career aspirations with foundational computer and professional skills. Computer CORE is one of the only programs in Virginia that focuses solely on digital literacy for adults. We do, however, collaborate with other entities that offer digital skills training in conjunction with other services, such as adult education, literacy programs, and the libraries.
Computer CORE serves adults 18 and over and our student population is around 95% immigrants who come from over 100 countries. Our students are 95% people of color, 70% women, and the average age is about 45.
We would like to share with you first-hand the impact that CORE has with the immigrant community. What follows is an interview with Computer CORE’s Community Outreach and Student Success Manager, Nagia Khaldi Kurabi, conducted by Computer CORE’s Executive Director, Donna Walker James.
Nagia Khaldi Kurabi is a former student of Computer CORE. She first visited the U.S. in 1983 and moved here permanently from Syria in 1987, receiving her citizenship in 1990. Learn more about Nagia’s story.
Nagia is the Community Outreach and Student Success Manager at CORE. Known as our “student whisperer,” it is her responsibility to interact with all the students to make sure they understand everything from signing up on-line, to pre- and post-assessments, how to Zoom, which online classes to take, and what opportunities are available after Computer CORE. She never gets tired and never gives up on a student—especially never allowing them to give up on themselves. She frequently uses her own story to motivate others.
DWJ: Nagia, for this issue of PROGRESS we have been asked what is the relationship between teaching digital literacy skills and assisting immigrants to acculturate to the United States and find success.
NKK: As an immigrant myself, before discovering Computer CORE, I felt like a forgotten person. American culture is not my first culture and English is not my first language. I was not raised here. Even though I speak English fluently now, it is not my mother tongue. Speaking is always challenging. It has always been hard to fit in. I had to work harder, had to learn the language and culture, how to survive, and prove myself to be who I am right now.
In the beginning, each immigrant struggles with the language and/or culture and wants to fit in. They all want to work and have to work, but there is a lot of competition and pressure.
When people first come to this country and land in Virginia, they find it hard to connect to services. No one knows where to go—they feel like no one is answering the phone or getting back to them. In most cases, they have experienced the trauma of war, natural disaster, or other hardships in their home country.
People come to us lost and don’t know what to do—we show them how to succeed. We don’t give out jobs, but we help them with the skills needed to get jobs and the confidence to say they know how to do the work in interviews. We help them update their résumés and write professional emails.
I have a lot of connections in the immigrant community and people know to tell others, “Call Nagia” or “Call CORE.” I follow up, I call again and again once they express interest and I don’t give up on anyone. We don’t give up.
Sometimes our immigrant students feel like I am telling their story and speaking their thoughts. The immigrant community appreciates Computer CORE.
Who are we? We are not any one group. It’s just all of these melting pot people helping each other. Building connections between U.S.-born students and immigrants from around the world. Helping the immigrants helps the community altogether. Getting more people into higher paying jobs helps the Virginia economy.
Let me bring the example of our work with the family of six from Afghanistan who have just arrived in Richmond. These are people struggling to exist in a country they just came to. They all wanted to take our virtual computer classes and we were able to deliver refurbished desktop and laptop computers for them to keep at no cost. The mother needed beginning 00 classes, such as English conversation, Bridges to Success, and personal development. Two of the sisters needed our 101 classes such as Microsoft Word and Excel. Another sister needed our 201 classes such as Intermediate Excel. The brothers wanted Cloud Computing and Python Coding to lead to an IT job. This family comprises much of what we do, as some were working, looking for work, or planning on going to college. The family was looking for a program like CORE that could accommodate different ages, different levels of English language skills, and computer skills. They could not find anything until a former CORE student who is their cousin told them about Computer CORE. This one program could accommodate the whole family.
It is important to remember that not all immigrants and refugees need English or remedial education. Many know a lot and can advance quickly.
DWJ: Why are they seeking a program like ours? There are many adult basic education programs and nonprofits that help people, including some specialized in immigrant issues. What about learning computer skills is particularly important to immigrants?
NKK: Learning computer skills helps us feel good about ourselves. It builds up our confidence. We are not helpless. Not worthless. This program lets you know that you can do it.
With computers, there is a struggle to ask anyone how to do the simplest things. Without these classes, we spend hours and hours trying to learn how to do things. CORE doesn’t just throw things at you. We help our students from step one, where you are at—even if you are at zero—until you become proficient in computer skills. This does not just happen overnight—it is not just one thing. College expects you to know these things, but Computer CORE starts where you are. Step-by-step. Then we prepare you to go out into the world.
There are also students who want to work hard to get much higher paying jobs for which they will need certificates. We are beginning to work more on certifications, but some students need other classes such as English conversation, Bridges to Success, and personal development to help acculturate before they can excel with certifications.
Our goal is to improve their computer skills and career skills so we can improve our community to make it better. Our eventual goal is to improve our community. We do this by offering the classes and refurbished computers at no cost to enrolled students. We also help people receive free Internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Plan (ACP).
DWJ: In your opinion, why is it so important that Computer CORE services be offered at no cost to participants?
NKK: It is so important to be free because our students are struggling to find jobs and make it in this country. We serve low-to-moderate-income communities who cannot afford to go to private schools and pay thousands of dollars.
Nagia coordinates Computer CORE students and volunteers for a live event.
Partnering with CORE
Although we are not funded by the Virginia adult education system, since 1999, Computer CORE has built up an expertise in teaching adults by listening to the needs of our adult students and creating programming around their educational and workforce goals. In response to our students, CORE teaches digital content in virtual classrooms in the evenings. We carefully group students into classes based on their skills levels (00, 101, 201). Instructors match the starting point and the pace of instruction to student needs—starting where each student is at. Listening to student comments and questions, having at least two instructors in the classroom, and making use of breakout rooms are helpful strategies. Also, providing multiple ways to receive the information—live, recorded, and print—are important. Many English language learners appreciate being able to pause and replay the recordings and use closed captioning. Since moving online, in response to student interest and volunteer instructor availability, Computer CORE has added courses in Python Coding, Cloud Computing, SQL, and other advanced subjects. For the most part, these are introductory classes starting from very basic knowledge, but moving learners new to the topics to higher levels of understanding and eventually to certifications.
Computer CORE has many existing partnerships and is available to work with adult education programs to provide the digital literacy component of your offerings where we can be helpful. An example of how CORE collaborates with adult education is with the statewide rollout of Code Beats for Adult Learners, developed by Dr. David Shepherd in the Engineering Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Code Beats is an adult coding program taught online. It uses hip-hop beats to make coding accessible and fun. Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC) introduced Dr. Shepherd and Computer CORE and helped advertise this free coding camp for adults to adult education, literacy, and workforce development programs all over Virginia. Computer CORE assists by handling student registration and providing a no-cost six-month Intro to Coding with Python (ITCWP) class as a follow-up. Many students in Coding/ITCWP have continued on to a community college coding class with the Community College Workforce Alliance (CCWA) leading to a PCAP certification—also free to eligible students.
Other areas where CORE can collaborate with adult education programs include connecting our largely immigrant and refugee student body to GED® and high school diploma programs. We have a large number of students without these credentials looking to improve their educational levels and enter the workforce.
Please share your ideas and digital needs with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our full contact information is:
201 N Union Street, Ste 110
Alexandria, VA 22314
Computer CORE online class. Drawing by Mack Robinson.
Please change this to 5500+ since our founding in 1999. 200 students per term with three terms a year, so 600 students per year, 100 countries of origin, 95% students of color, 70% women, 95% students from low-income households (take off the locations in Virginia)
Donna Walker James, Executive Director, Computer CORE. Under James’ leadership, Computer CORE pivoted to 100% online no-cost classes, expanded course offerings, re-invigorated the distribution of free refurbished computers, and co-created a Virginia-wide coding program collaborating with the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center and Virginia Commonwealth University on a project known as Code Beats. Computer CORE also has now has a Help Desk for basic computer questions that can be addressed virtually: 866-977-3033 or email@example.com. James spent most of her career in workforce and education related-roles and a variety of nonprofit positions in and near Alexandria, Virginia. She earned both her B.A. in urban studies and M.S. Ed. at the University of Pennsylvania.
Nagia Khaldi Kurabi, Community Outreach and Student Success Manager, Computer CORE. A graduate of Computer CORE, Nagia joined the Computer CORE staff as Student Recruiter and Classroom Associate in 2018 and advanced to Community Outreach and Student Success Manager in 2021. In this crucial role at CORE, Nagia is able to fulfill her long term commitment to help others by assisting new immigrants and refugees improve their lives in the United States. She serves as liaison to the greater Northern Virginia community, working along with CORE staff and volunteers to engage, enroll, and place applicants in classes that meet their needs, ensuring students receive the skills they need to learn computer technology, increase career development skills—and ultimately improve their lives. With her drive, background experience, and skills, Nagia is ideally suited to her role and exceeds beyond the job description with her unflappable, upbeat demeanor. Nagia previously worked at BB&T Bank as an Assistant of Business Banker and assisted the City Executive in Springfield. Nagia has a degree in Physical Therapy from Syria and several credits from Northern Virginia Community College. She has recently been accepted into as an undergraduate student at George Mason University where she will enter the Bachelor of Individualized Study (BIS) program.
CODE BEATS FOR ADULT LEARNERS—SAVE THE DATE!
September 20–October 27
Thanks to a grant from Virginia Commonwealth University, Code Beats for Adult Learners will be back this fall better than ever! We’ve been able to tailor our music and learning methodology even more to adults and involve inspirational leaders working in computer science and music. Compute CORE Board Member, programmer, and rap recording artist, Abel Meri, and local Hip Hop artist Dumi RIGHT are just two individuals that we are excited to introduce to participants.
Code Beats is open to all Virginia adult learners at no cost and we invite parents to participate with their children and instructors to participate with their students. While Code Beats takes place online every Tuesday and Thursday evening at 7 p.m. (with a Wednesday help session), we invite programs to host live streaming sessions at your site so that you can engage your learners with something new and exciting.
This 6-week boot camp focuses on FUN and is followed by a 6-month Intro to Coding with Python bridge class with Computer CORE, also at no cost and which follows a similar schedule. From there, learners can continue on with the Python PCAP credential course offered by the Community College Workforce Alliance (CCWA) and supported through Fast Forward funding.
This computer coding pathway has been proven to bring adult learners to an industry-recognized credential and high-paying jobs in under a year. Start spreading the word to your community and be on the lookout for promotional materials coming soon!
Questions? Contact Katherine Hansen.