The Standout Dropout
If you ask Muriel Surmely, French society sends a pretty clear message to youth
who drop out of high school: You’re worthless. That’s how she felt, at least, after
flunking out in ninth grade. If someone had told her back then that she would be
in charge of designing and developing a Microsoft website, she would have laughed.
“Thanks to Web@cademie, I have a job, I can leave behind the odd jobs, meet many
different people, and do things I had never done before. The possibilities are infinite.”
up with a stay-at-home mom who fostered a number of children and a father who was
a chief officer in the army. During her childhood, her military family moved back and
forth between Paris and Brittany. She felt aimless and wasn’t engaged in school.
After she dropped out of high school, the feelings of worthlessness followed her
for years. She bounced around between jobs. She trained to be a secretary but that
wasn’t the right fit. She worked in a pet shop, printed photographs, served food
at McDonald’s, and helped breed dogs. It wasn’t until Muriel was serving food in
a university cafeteria, working alongside women old enough to be her grandmother, that
she realized this wasn’t the life she wanted.
“I saw myself in twenty years and I freaked out,” Muriel said. “I should have been
laughing with the students instead of serving them.”
She had always been interested in computer science, so she began looking for low-cost
online programs. A friend sent her a link to Web@cademie, a Microsoft program created
last year through a $250,000 YouthSpark grant. Microsoft YouthSpark is the company-wide
initiative launched last fall to create opportunities for 300 million young people
worldwide over three years. The financial support from YouthSpark let Web@cademie
provide IT training and increase access to technology resources for French youth.
The Web@cademie program provides free, two-year web development training to high
school dropouts between the ages of 18 and 25 to help prepare them for skilled tech
jobs. Last year, the program trained 60 youth in France; the goal is to reach 1,000
young people by 2015.
Youth unemployment in France is about 26 percent, more than double the national
rate, according to the EU Labour Force Survey. In some rural areas, it tops 40 percent.
France’s newly elected president, Francois Hollande, ran his campaign on finding ways
to tackle the rampant youth joblessness; in May he announced a plan to offer training
and create jobs for young people who are out of work.
Impressed with Muriel's motivation and resiliency, Web@cademie founder Francois
Benthanane asked her to share her story with 1,200 Microsoft France employees at
a company seminar. Her presentation got a standing ovation.
of the best
parts of the program for Muriel was having a mentor to push her. To go from believing
she was no one to having someone tell her she could do anything was very rewarding,
she said. She now believes that any project is possible.
“My first impression when I arrived was that all the doors were opening up to me.
My mentors pushed me to outdo myself,” she said. “I’m given a project with a deadline,
then I have to manage it on my own. When you submit your project and get a really
good grade, then you think ‘I can do this after all.’”
Not coming from a traditional tech background actually works to her advantage, Muriel
said. Because the field of computer science is constantly evolving, she’s glad she
didn’t confine herself to learning just one language. Through her internship at
Microsoft France, she was given a website to build on a technology platform she
hadn’t learned. Not only did she complete the job, she did it well. She works hard,
but she loves it.
“Thanks to Web@cademie, I have a job, I can leave behind the odd jobs, meet many different people, and do things I had never done before,” said Muriel, who sees herself working as a Microsoft Developer Evangelist. “The possibilities are infinite.”