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Rafael Cosman

Rafael Cosman, '15

Empowering youth to achieve their dreams through technology

What if there was a summer camp where every day is like a hackathon? Rafael Cosman, ’15, teamed up with two other Stanford students to create CodeCamp, a four-week summer program for high school students in East Palo Alto.

By Van Tran, '16

CodeCamp participants pose for a photo outside of Facebook.
CodeCamp takes a field trip to Facebook. In the back row are StreetCode Academy instructors Michelle McGhee, ’18, Rafael Cosman, ’15, and Shadi Barhoumi, ’17. (Photo: StreetCode Academy)

When Rafael Cosman, '15, came to Stanford as an aspiring computer scientist, he couldn't have predicted how important public service would ultimately prove to his Stanford experience.

He came into service by chance, when a friend invited him to become a volunteer teacher for Beyond Z, a nonprofit piloting an after-school coding program for high school students at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. The program's goal was to empower low-income students from East Palo Alto with the technical skills to improve their lives and the lives of those in their community.

The early weeks proved challenging. For Rafael, the classroom dynamic consisted of him telling his students to code and them giving half-hearted responses. While the students were getting the coding concepts, they somehow weren't getting into the spirit of coding.

The turning point came when Rafael and other volunteers took the program participants to San Jose for a hackathon, a 24-hour coding marathon that pushed his students' coding skills to the limit. The competition was fierce, with high school students from all around the Bay Area hoping to demonstrate their coding skills.

Everyone from East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy went crazy with applause when one of the students from their program made it to the finalist's round. Standing on a stage in front of thousands of people, the boy presented the new app he'd programmed, which functioned as an improved version of craigslist.

After that long weekend, Rafael's students came back from the hackathon tired but "completely transformed" with a newfound resolve to learn to code.

The best part was seeing the students take an empowering role in their education.

Rafael reflected, "After the hackathon, they told us, ‘We want to learn how to code.' They took control of that class. It was game-changing."

Rafael continued teaching the after-school program, but he couldn't forget how it felt to see his students come together as a community to work on the projects that meant most to them. He wondered, why not make a summer camp where every day is like a hackathon?

He teamed up with Shadi Barhoumi, '17, another Stanford student volunteer at Beyond Z, to co-found CodeCamp in the summer of 2014. They partnered with StreetCode Academy to provide the 4-week summer program for high school students in East Palo Alto.

For Rafael, one of the most rewarding aspects of the work is providing his students with the encouragement and momentum to accomplish the things they've always dreamed of doing.

He believes firmly that "it's very valuable to create a space and a time where you work as hard as possible on the thing you care most about."

For example, two high school boys had spent the last seven years wanting to start their own clothing line. Before they came to CodeCamp, the idea seemed like a pipe dream; they simply didn't feel like they had the resources needed to succeed.

DemoDay, the culminating event of CodeCamp, was the perfect opportunity to launch. At DemoDay, students presented to a large audience the app, website, or company they started during their time with CodeCamp. For these aspiring entrepreneurs, DemoDay was their big chance to advertise the website they'd built for their clothing line and to sell their first set of designed shirts.

Rafael said, "When I told them this was actually happening, they were surprised. When you dream about something for so long and it actually happens, you're nervous."

The boys poured their savings into designing their first batch of t-shirts, and Rafael worked one-on-one with them to ensure that their debut would be a success.

When DemoDay came, the t-shirts sold out the first night, doubling the students' investment. Since graduating from CodeCamp, the boys plan to continue pursuing their dream by investing that money in the next set of shirts and redesigning their website.

Likewise, Rafael is hard at working pursuing his passion. After graduating from Stanford, he decided to spend the summer working full-time for StreetCode Academy.

Following that, Rafael hopes to "visit the major tech hubs of the world, from Tel Aviv to Seoul, and see what interesting technologies people are working on everywhere." There's no doubt that Rafael will continue to touch and be touched by the lives of those he serves.     

Rafael Cosman, '15, teamed up with two other Stanford students to create CodeCamp, a four-week summer program for high school students in East Palo Alto.
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