Defying stereotypes: This Utah student is a cheerleader AND robotics team captain

Fifi Teklemedhin tripled the size of her robotics team, interned with the State of Utah, and met former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan… all before her senior year.

Computer science… and cheerleading? Fifi Teklemedhin, a senior at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, has participated in both and says they have more in common than people might think.

High school senior Fifi Teklemedhin has been a member of her school’s robotics team and cheerleading squad. (Photo courtesy Fifi Teklemedhin)

For starters, you can’t be afraid to fail.

“When I was a flyer on the cheerleading team, I was never scared of being physically injured but I was always super scared of failure,” says Fifi. “And one thing that you do in computer science, inevitably, is fail. All the time. Like, it would be a small miracle if my code worked on the first try, but it’s never happened yet. With computer science, I was never afraid to fail, and with cheerleading, I had to learn to fail in a different way.”

Both activities also require discipline, planning, and mental strength. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fifi isn’t cheering this year. But from her sophomore year to the end of last year, she was a flyer on the varsity squad and captain of the robotics team (amid taking a full course load at school and volunteering as well), so careful timing and planning went into her schedule.

“They both require a lot of discipline,” she says. “But being able to pace yourself and set quantifiable goals and have what you want to accomplish visualized really helps.”

“I’ve never been the type of person to unnecessarily do things I have no passion for. So while that might seem like a lot of time, I spent that time doing what I wanted to do, so it didn’t really feel like I was working a lot of the time.”

Gimme a C! Gimme an S!

Fifi’s passion for computer science began in middle school when she chose an elective class at random: “I had an extra spot and I thought that computer science sounded cool and nerdy, so I took it without really knowing what it was,” she says. “But I found it really interesting! So I continued on and kept persevering with it, and that’s how I really fell in love with it.”

After taking Programming I in 7th grade and Programming II in 8th grade, Fifi maxed out by taking both AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A in 9th grade. This year, she’s taking IB (International Baccalaureate) Computer Science.

Fifi is also responsible for tripling the size of her school’s robotics team. She accomplished that by asking every STEM teacher at her school if she and other members of the team could come talk to their class about robotics.

“I tried to make it seem as accessible as possible because I know robotics seems like something you have to already know how to do,” she says. “But I wasn’t born with a drill in my hand, right? That’s a very bad misconception. I told people that they could join with zero experience.”

Most people wouldn’t expect a cheerleader to also love CS, but those generalizations often keep young women out of the field. Fifi is grateful for the female mentors she’s had that have encouraged her to stick with it, but knows that not every young woman in CS is so lucky.

“It’s been very male-dominated, the team and the spaces I’ve been in,” she says. “It’s really about not questioning your place in the space. The way you act inevitably reflects in the way you think, so if you behave as if you don’t belong there, you will essentially convey that.”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is, fake it ‘till you make it! Nobody will know you don’t belong there unless you tell them. I recommend going and entering whatever space you can.”

More than a statistic

As we know, computer science has a racial and ethnic diversity gap as well as a gender gap. Fifi knows that all too well: At one point, she was one of just two Black students in the entire state of Utah to be taking an AP Computer Science course.

“I realized that was me, that I was that statistic, I was that number on the board,” she says. “I did not like how that felt, especially since I don’t see myself as THE representative for anything. I offer one perspective and I didn’t want to be the ONE kid that shows what African American kids have to offer in computer science.”

This chart shows participation in the AP Computer Science exam among white students (yellow) and Black students (blue) from 2007 to 2020. See more data at code.org/promote/ap.

In her opinion, the key to narrowing the diversity gap in computer science is meeting students from underrepresented groups where they are. She says it’s not enough to simply provide opportunities — those opportunities need to be presented directly to students who are then encouraged and empowered to take them.

“It’s a lot about not being told that you can do those things,” says Fifi. “The problem is that kids are not approached. Opportunities exist for them, but they’re not incredibly easily accessible. I’m talking about not only having the opportunities and advertising them on posters in high schools, but literally going into classrooms and making sure kids sign up.”

Fifi says representation is also a big factor: “I don’t see any major Black figures — I do see female figures, but that’s been recently, you know? If you can’t see somebody that looks like you and you can’t see yourself in that field, what’s going to make you get in there, other than luck?”

The face of the future

Fifi’s passion for changing the face of computer science has opened many doors, including an opportunity to speak on a panel with former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in early 2020.

She says it felt weird to simply leave school that day, and walk onto a stage with VIPs, but credits the opportunity with cementing her excitement for a future in CS.

“I’d always loved coding as a subject, but I never really had a grasp on what my highs in the field could be,” she says. “It was incredible to see so many people from all walks of life, like medical assistants, CEOs — I saw Mark Zuckerberg there! — and so many people who were just starting out in computer science, all carve out a space for me to talk.”

“Seeing what type of field I was going into and seeing the adult that I could become within that space was really, really motivational for me.”

So what’s next for Fifi? She graduates with an IB diploma this year and plans to pursue computer science in college after that. But she also plans to do what she can to lift up younger students behind her: “The biggest thing I want to do is give back to my community and my school, both in terms of helping kids with college applications and helping kids get into the tech industry and learning how to network.”

She encourages any student even remotely interested in computer science to not wait another minute to give it a try.

“With computer science, you just need to dive head first. The less you know, the more you have to learn and that’s exciting for me personally!”

— Samantha Urban Tarrant, Code.org

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