Notley Changemaker Interview: Matt Stephenson

Published: February 1, 2023

We talked to Matt Stephenson, CEO & Co-founder of Code2College, a nonprofit on a mission to dramatically increase the number of minority and low-income high school students who enter and excel in STEM undergraduate majors and careers.

Matt Stephenson has always had a mind for helping out. 

Co-founder of Austin-based nonprofit Code2College, Matt explains that Church and family are where he developed his passion for service. He spent a great deal of his childhood working in his hometown church and that has had an indelible mark on his life. 

“Friday nights I was involved in my youth group, Saturday mornings, I was routinely preparing food in my church’s soup kitchen, Saturday nights I would help my mom prepare breakfast for the church and on Sundays I recorded each service from the sound booth,” he says. 

A first generation Jamican-American and first-generation college-student, Matt found success in school through coding and the economic opportunities it provided him. Thanks to the spirit of service instilled in him from childhood, his coding experience sparked a question — “How can I bring these critical skill sets to high-potential, low-access students who look like me?”

Matt continued to consider how he might be able to leverage his own technical skills and realize his deep passion for service. He spent some time working in finance, but this seed of an idea, to serve others through a STEM education lens, inevitably inspired a career pivot.

“It was probably around eight years later when I was graduating from Wharton when I started to shift into the Education sector.”

Naturally, after business school, Matt became a High School math teacher at a Title I high school. He spent four years in public education — with two years as an Educator and two years in school finance — before co-founding Code2College in 2016 with his wife. 

Education is one of the most complex and crucial of our nations’ public services; nuanced integration is just one way that Matt’s perspective challenges the status-quo. Code2College has folded into the tapestry of schools in over 20 cities across the nation — reinforcing these equity-based ideas, all while helping students grow their own interest in STEM. 

“The way we try to foster a passion for STEM,” says Matt, “is that, 1. We work to make it relatable, 2. fun, and 3. relevant. We prioritize intentional student-centered design in our program; from building a graphing calculator project to ‘choose your own adventure’ game, we’re obsessed with student experience in Code2College.”

This isn’t the only form of curation provided to a Code2College student. Matt and his team have also been exploring approaches to describing their programs without deficit-based language. 

What is a deficit-based language? In education, it’s leading with a person’s disadvantages — AKA “at-risk”, “vulnerable”, “disenfranchised” — rather than their strengths, and without the proper context. 

Matt believes this can reinforce some problematic archetypes, particularly for students of color. Instead — he opts for strength-based language at Code2College, choosing to highlight the students’ abilities AND recognizing any systemic roots of their [disadvantages] in language and programming. 

“[Deficit-based language] focuses on the plight of the individual being impacted or disenfranchised, as opposed to taking a keen eye to the system that creates this situation,” says Matt. “I’ve been using the phrase ‘underestimated’ quite a bit. I didn’t coin that. The first time I heard ‘underestimated’ was from Arlan Hamilton, Managing Partner and Founder at Backstage Capital. [Instead of deficit-based language], we affirm and positively narrate what our students achieve. For instance, we highlight how impactful it is that they’re investing in themselves at such a young age.”

Matt focuses on the students’ future trajectories and how they’ll view their own success. He asks, “How can we uplift [our students], what they’re doing and how they’re spending their time as opposed to focusing on the challenges that they will experience? You can absolutely talk about the challenges they’ll experience and I do. But I do think that it’s troublesome to lead with that.”

We asked Matt how Code2College fits into a student’s education experience overall. “If there’s a student who’s taking computer science and they’re like, ‘I want more, I need more. Give me [more]’; Code2College can offer rigorous technical education that isn’t otherwise offered in high school,” he says. “If a student is feeling reticent or feeling nervous about exploring coding, they can participate in Code2College and doing so means that after some success with us, that might compel them to pursue formal computer science education in school.”

Dedication from the Code2College team to achieving this type of equity, the kind that centers the student experience, has paid off.

“Students have generally experienced an uptick in their performance academically, in part, as a result of being in our program,” Matt explains. “It’s one thing to say to a student, you’re going to learn trigonometry or you’ve got to learn parts of speech or these concepts that likely feel unhelpful in the moment. It’s quite another to show them the type of life that they could have and the type of role they could enter if they do well in school and develop marketable skills. I do think that’s a large part of what we offer through our corporate office visits, through students getting to meet and work with volunteer instructors who work in these industries by day. These are all opportunities for them to really see themselves or what their futures could look like.”

Add to that, the fact that Code2College also places these high school students into paid, software engineering internships with global tech companies further accelerates their academic and career trajectories.