She Reads, She Codes, She Rocks

Gifts to the Dartmouth College Fund help make great things happen for our students. Here is one of their stories.

KAYA THOMAS ’17, a computer science major from Staten Island, New York, created We Read Too, a mobile app that features a directory of more than 600 children’s and young adult books with characters of color, by authors of color. Kaya also started her own YouTube channel called Code With Kaya, which includes tech tutorials in computer coding aimed at beginners. In 2015, she was honored at the national Black Girls Rock! awards and received special recognition from First Lady Michelle Obama.

THE IDEA FOR MY “WE READ TOO” APP CAME TO ME 
in high school. I read a lot of young adult books—uplifting stories about young girls in the suburbs finding themselves—and I was getting frustrated because there were very few black girls in these stories. The few books that did have black girls as main characters tended to be depressing and tragic. At the time, I was struggling a bit with my own self-image, and was looking for books that were about girls like me that were more upbeat. I thought, “There should be a resource for this.” But it was just an idea.

Before I came to Dartmouth, I had never studied computer science and had no experience with coding. I thought I would major in engineering. Then I took Computer Science 2: Programming for Interactive Audio-Visual Arts. It opened a whole new world to me, and I was completely hooked. In computer science, courses are often taught in different programming languages, so you have to learn fast to keep pace. I was learning app development pretty quickly, and I thought, “Why not create an app to increase access to all the books I was collecting?” So I started the project.

I launched We Read Too in 2014 with 300 titles. It now has over 600 titles and more than 5,000 users. I get a lot of feedback from kids, but even more from teachers, librarians, and parents who want to expose kids to these books. I hear from authors, too. I even had a working mom and author of African descent from London ask me if I could feature her children’s book. She needed help marketing it and didn’t have a big-name publisher. I added her book and spotlighted it on the app’s Facebook page. She was thrilled.

In the long term, I’d like to use my technology skills in nonprofit organizations that center on teaching and education for underrepresented communities. I secured a senior fellowship with the technology nonprofit CODE2040 for this summer. Through them I’ll do an internship in Silicon Valley and mentor undergraduates in coding. It’s a great opportunity to help some underrepresented populations and gain leadership skills. I’m really excited.  

Looking back, studying computer science at Dartmouth has given me so much. And it was so inspiring to meet Michelle Obama through Black Girls Rock! She was incredibly genuine and caring. I was one of three honorees who met with her, and she told us, “I’m so proud of you, and don’t worry. You’ll be in the White House one day.”