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Hersey computer science students develop opportunities for classmates

Published May 24, 2024

Alex Strugacz is heading to Cornell University this fall; Miguel Aenlle to the University of Illinois.

After that … who knows, other than onward and upward? There’s no hyperbole in saying that the sky truly could be the limit for two John Hersey High School seniors who already have boldly gone where no students before them have gone.

Together, the friends-since-sixth-grade have blazed a trail by:

  • Creating and leading Hersey Hack Club, a computer science student group that draws 20 to 30 students weekly for a new presentation and project. And, by the way, attracts its participants on Fridays after school,  defying the gravitational pull of TGIF, football games and all-things-weekend.
  • Created and led Hersey Developers, an authentic coding and programming internship for about 30 students from all six of District 214’s comprehensive high schools. Which, incidentally, makes Miguel and Alex the District’s largest provider of internships.
  • Won an app showcase competition and presented their creation (EasyMeal, available on iPhone’s App Store) to tech professionals at Apple’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue.
  • Organized, marketed and solicited funding for HSHacks, a Hersey-hosted hackathon, which drew some 120 students from 30-plus Chicago-area schools. Alex and Miguel oversaw it all, creating a varied program and recruited STEM professionals to lead workshops for students with varying degrees of experience. “All I had to do,” said Hersey computer science teacher Bob Brown, “was line up the facility.”

Brown has long since moved beyond being surprised by anything that Miguel and Alex propose or accomplish. Still, he says, he’s not seen anything quite like these two seniors in all his years as an educator.

“As sophomores, they asked if we could start a new club for computer science students,” Brown recalled. “We talked it through and agreed it would be student run. They absolutely took the reins and ran with it. Every single Friday during the school year, they teach students something new that’s web-based or app-based or something else that’s cool in computer science.”

Moreover, Brown said, Alex and Miguel approach it as any adult professional would: preparing and walking through the presentation in advance and evaluating afterward what went well and what they could improve.

Angela Ferrazza, Hersey’s Student Success Coach, listens to Brown’s account and laughs. “I’m just competitive enough that I’m going to top that,” she said. Her job, she explains, involves reviewing student internship applications, interviewing students and finding good work-experience matches. She remembers interviewing Alex and Miguel individually and reaching the same conclusion for both.

“Their requests, in scope, were nothing like a typical student, in which we could set up an internship for coding or an introduction to working the front and backend of a web site. These two had already done it. They came in asking for experiences we couldn’t possibly fulfill. I asked them to come in together, and I was honest; I said, ‘I feel like I’m going to fail you. In fact, it feels like maybe there’s something you can teach.’ ”

So they did. Working with Ferrazza and other Hersey staff, Miguel and Alex established their own academically accredited 60-hour internship experience: Hersey Developers, composed of a 20-hour skills segment followed by a 40-hour project component. Together, Alex and Miguel guide interns through the development of websites to be used within District 214.

“We got as close to offering a professional software development experience as they possibly could get as high school students,” Miguel said. “We had them work through realistic real world software development tasks. We hosted orientation meetings; we discussed coursework assignment and learning skills. In the second phase – the project phase - we met to discuss and assign project tasks.” In their role as instructors, Alex and Miguel evaluated interns’ work and gave essentially real-time feedback.

In its first year, Hersey Developers saw 18 students successfully complete the program. For their second year, Alex and Miguel learned from the initial effort, applied tweaks to make it even more robust and this year successfully guided 27 students through the internship - all the while investing literally hundreds of hours of their own time – above and beyond their own AP-laden class schedules.

How did the friends arrive at this point, initiating and delivering projects so far above and beyond the norm? Miguel says that a childhood interest in Legos led to middle school programming and eventually a programming course via MIT. He cites, too, finding part-time work at a remodeling company’s IT Department that lets him apply his software skills in a business setting. Miguel has built for his employer a cloud-based customer database that manages data on more than 30,000 customers.

Alex’s coding journey started early in high school and led to an online Harvard computer science course that deepened his interest. After scoring a 5 on an AP computer science exam without actually taking the course, he decided he might be on the right track.

As sophomores, Miguel and Alex started discussing their shared interest in earnest over Jimmy John’s lunches and approached Mr. Brown, with results now well established. Both count among the greatest satisfaction of their efforts being with other students who share their passion for coding.

Miguel says he appreciates the way students work together to solve problems. “It’s always super satisfying to see everybody finish a project and see their faces light up with pride,” he said. Alex concurs. “My favorite part of Hack Club is definitely the friends I’ve made there. Before, the only other person I knew who was deep into coding was Miguel; now I have a whole group of people just as interested in coding as I am.”

While they are justifiably proud of their work, Alex and Miguel also are deeply appreciative of their opportunities. Alex remarked “I want to say a really big thank you to Mr. Brown as well as Ms. Ferrazza and to the District for their willingness to support our programs. This really is a great District to attend school in.”

Both seniors acknowledge that their ambitious schedule makes time management both challenging and essential. Miguel relies on the Eisenhower matrix; Alex uses a Notion calendar. Both say experience is teaching them that getting sufficient sleep at some point is important to stay on track and turn aspirations into reality.

Speaking of aspirations, Alex plans to major in computer science as well as minor in Artificial Intelligence at Cornell, and looks forward to building a like-minded community similar to what he’s helped create and sustain at Hersey. Miguel will study computer science, pursue software engineering internships and conduct artificial intelligence research at the University of Illinois. Both envision eventually founding their own tech start-ups. And there, the real question may not be whether that happens … but how soon.