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."
Muriel grew 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 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. An estimated 1.9 million French youth are NEETS (not in employment, education, or training), according to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Condition. Muriel could have easily been one of those statistics.
She applied to Web@cademie less than a week before the deadline and was accepted. It was a rigorous application process, she said, but she matched the program’s criteria perfectly: young, passionate about computer science, highly motivated but no high school degree, and without money to pay for her education.
The possibilities are infinite
Muriel stood out to Web@cademie founder Francois Benthanane for her determination, positivity, and enthusiasm, as well as her adaptability to new learning environments. “Muriel has a true passion for the web developer profession, which allowed her to become one of the best students in the program,” Benthanane said.
Because of what she learned at Web@cademie, Muriel secured an internship at Microsoft France. When she was brought onto the internship program, she didn’t know the different tools or languages, such as .NET, Windows 8, and C#. Thanks to the Web@cademie pedagogy, she quickly mastered all the new tools required of her. One 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. The possibilities are infinite."