In 2017 a group of technology students from Harvard found themselves stumped by the severe lack of mission-driven technical internships. Their solution to this problem? Coding It Forward: an initiative that enables young, emerging technologists with the opportunity to use their skills for social good. Since its production, Coding It Forward has grown to include over 6,000 people from all over the country. Today, it offers students a growing plethora of opportunities from government collaboration to social impact organizations. One of its programs stands out from all the others: The Civic Digital Fellowship Program.
The Civic Digital Fellowship Program is a ten-week program that equips students in different fields of technology (from data scientists to designers) to utilize their technical skills for public service; these students are referred to as Civic Digital Fellows. This program is the very first of its kind, and is modeled on four principles: the fellows must be compensated for their hard work through monetary gains, they tackle work with a high impact, their professional careers are developed, and finally, their community is cohort-based.
To learn more about the wonders of The Civic Digital Fellowship Program, former and current UC San Diego students previously involved with The Design Lab were interviewed about their fellowships.
The collaborative, engaging environment of the Civic Digital Fellowship has equipped all three students with the skills and the passion to pursue greater ventures in the civic design field.
Unlike most design majors at UC San Diego, Guo initially joined on the pre-med track before discovering design and changing the trajectory of her career. Since then, she has been involved at Fi @ UCSD as a UX Consultant, was a team lead for a collaborative project between The Design Lab and Ford, and was also the Product Design Lead at Platter. Currently, she is completing her final quarter at UC San Diego. Between it all, she was a Civic Digital Fellow with Coding it Forward.
After applying to the fellowship, and ultimately getting accepted, Guo had to go through a behavioral interview that would determine which agency she would get matched with. “I ended up being assigned to work at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS),” she explains, “Where my project was to conduct a heuristic audit of the IRS’s twenty-two most utilized websites, and figure out how to best orient the user experience of the IRS to boost trust and confidence in their online services” Guo elaborates that her experience was unique because it occurred during the thicket of the pandemic. However, she notes that she still found it extremely engaging. “It was really interesting to see how they work because the IRS normally does work remotely,” Guo continues. “But I was still able to see how powerful ux and product design can really be, and how much of an impact I can make while working for an organization like that. This internship really helped me see the impact of design , and I’ll carry that with me in any design work I’ll do. I will always look for ways to make a positive impact.”
The emerging designer further states that the civic digital fellowship was truly eye-opening for her. “You meet so many talented and passionate people who are optimistic for growth within the government, and can use their experience from working at large companies to help the American people,” says Guo. “I hope to be like that, and I want to stay involved with social impact and be able to carry forward the work I did during this fellowship.” Guo attributes her zest for social design to this experience and insists that if anybody is wondering if they should apply to the internship, that they do.
“What I love about design is how people-focused it is,” says Foresti, “It’s all about people and how they think, and that’s what got me into design.” Foresti is currently a senior completing her final quarter at UC San Diego, with a plethora of experience ranging from being a design intern at FreshForm to being the Director of Communications at Atutu. From October 2020 to December 2020, she was a Civic Digital Fellow with Coding it Forward. “I had been interested in civic design for several years but couldn’t find my ‘in’. The fellowship is what got me interested in civic design and public interest technology,” she explains. During the fellowship, Foresti was matched with a team called Census Open Innovation Labs in the US Census Bureau. Her work set out to design a data hub for the Opportunity Project to increase public engagement with the massive amounts of federal data available. The Opportunity Project is a series of technical sprints that connects people from universities, corporations, government data stewards, and community advocates to use federal open data to tackle problem statements from first-hand experiences. “The program also had a lot of opportunities for networking,” Foresti elaborates, “Every week there were around four to five events that we could go to. I went to so many because I wanted to learn as much as I could and network. I met a lot of people doing amazing, awe-inspiring things.”
While highly passionate about civic technology, Foresti believes that her time as a Civic Digital Fellow equipped her with guidance she would have not gotten otherwise. “The unique thing about the fellowship is that there’s a mentorship program,” she states, “One of the biggest challenges with being a young designer interested in ‘design for good’ is that you’ll often be the only designer on a team. How do you improve? How do you advocate for your value and the value of design as more than just making things beautiful? This is common in government as well as a major challenge with the public interest tech firms I’ve interned with. So I was glad that during the fellowship I got two mentors who helped guide me and that I also got a lot of networking opportunities. It really helped me as an emerging designer.”
Eric Richards always had an inclination to “design for good” as exemplified by his individual studies major, Design for Social Innovation. While at UC San Diego, he helped co-found Atutu, a volunteer-run non-profit design studio, was the former Co-President of Design for America UCSD, and was highly involved at The Design Lab. After he graduated in 2020, with both the individual studies major degree and a Cognitive Science degree with a specialization in Human-Computer Interaction, he joined Skylight, a digital consultancy that uses design and technology to help agencies deliver better public services. Before that, he was a Civic Digital Fellow with Coding It Forward in 2019. “It was a really great opportunity to apply my skills towards public sector challenges,” says Eric. “Because as a part of the fellowship, every civUCic digital fellow gets matched with a government agency and specifically a project that is supposed to serve the public.” During his time in the fellowship, he was accepted as a product manager fellow and worked with a group called 18F; technologists within the General Service Administration, that focuses on improving the user experience of government digital services. “The civic digital fellowship opened up a lot of doors for me,” Richards explains. “I got to meet a bunch of people working within the civic technology field and attend a lot of networking events. It actually helped introduce me to some people who worked at Skylight, who helped me get an internship there.” This internship would later turn into a full-time job.
His favorite part, he says, is being connected to other students with similar passions for mission-driven work, social good, and public benefit. “I’d never been a part of a community so passionate about that sort of thing before,” he states. “All of these students come from different backgrounds and schools…[so] it’s really cool to just be a part of the program. Even today, though it’s been a few years since I’ve been involved with the fellowship, I still highly recommend anyone to apply.”