Coding For A Cause

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Tim Chew came to Galvanize to nudge the universe, and he plans to start by working with a population that could use some help: refugees.

“Well, there’s one other part of my story,” says Timothy Chew. For an hour now, Chew has been detailing his fascinating journey, from Detroit, Michigan to a German boarding school to Texas for a career as a documentary filmmaker and then finally to Galvanize.

A recent graduate of the immersive web development program at the Galvanize campus in Austin, Texas, Chew tells me that thanks to Galvanize’s coding school, he’s one step closer to realizing his goal of having a more direct impact in helping underserved populations around the world. But that progress, he explains, has not been without exceptional challenges. “This,” Chew says, “is actually my second attempt at graduating.”

Chew’s first effort to complete Galvanize’s WDI program ended abruptly in early 2016 after what was supposed to have been a routine trip to the doctor’s office. Seven years earlier, as a twentysomething film student at the University of Texas, Chew had suddenly lost hearing in his right ear. When doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with his ear, they performed a routine brain scan that revealed a benign tumor. Chew had scheduled regular checkups ever since to monitor the mass. There’d never been a problem—until an updated scan from that most recent visit revealed that since his last exam the tumor had doubled in size.  

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Before his health scare, Chew had decided that he wanted to reshape his professional life, which is why he’d enrolled in Galvanize in early 2016.

At the time, Chew had already been in the filmmaking business for about six years, and co-founded a commercial production company. But he’d grown restless during his time in the industry. That restlessness was amplified in the summer of 2015 when Chew traveled to the Middle East to shoot a documentary. The project briefly took Chew and the rest of the crew to Istanbul, Turkey, where he experienced the global refugee crisis firsthand. He met a Syrian family with at least seven kids that had spent what little money they had to flee their home country. None of the kids had been able to attend school. “Hearing their story, my heart broke,” Chew says. “I think one of the great tragedies is that there’s this entire generation that is losing their chance for an education.”

tim-chew-galvanize-web-dev-2Chew on a documentary film shoot in Varanasi, India

Specifically, Chew’s experience was shaped by the 17-year-old daughter of the family, who had taught herself to speak multiple languages simply by watching movies and using her smartphone. “Spending time with her it was clear that she’s highly intelligent and was hungry to learn,” Chew says. “But her only outlet was to work at this textile factory—essentially a sweatshop—to help put food on the table.”

Growing up overseas, Chew had seen more of the world by the time he turned 16 than most kids from Michigan, where he was born. By then, he’d lived in five countries including Germany and the former Soviet Union. What’s more, as a kid he witnessed his parents, who were both physicians, frequently dedicate themselves to humanitarian aid work. Still, there was something about that moment in Turkey, at that time in his life, that jolted Chew into action. “I couldn’t in good conscience just continue my comfortable, suburban life and not try to think of a way I could at least contribute to a solution,” Chew says.

He began brainstorming new professional paths. After talking with a friend who a good experience attending a coding school in Austin, Chew decided to consider that route for himself. He reviewed his options in the area and landed on Galvanize because, he says, the more comprehensive, in-depth format appealed to him. “I’m the type of person that when I do something I can be a perfectionist,” Chew says. “I didn’t want to just skim through the content; I really wanted to learn as much as I could.” His long-term plan was to take the coding skills he’d eventually acquire at Galvanize and find a way to share that knowledge with refugees. A group that, as Chew put it, is “just fighting for survival.”

Everything was going well when Chew first enrolled. He enjoyed the program and the coursework. He felt challenged. But then he went to his regular checkup last spring and the brain scan showed his tumor had doubled in size. Upset and disappointed, treatment forced Chew to drop out of Galvanize.

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Days after that initial scan, doctors wheeled Chew into an operating room; he woke up eight hours later and learned the procedure to remove the mass had gone as well as that sort of thing can go. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” Chew says. “But, amazingly, within about a month I was back to 100 percent.” Luckily, he says, the Galvanize community couldn’t have been more understanding. The company allowed him to withdraw, and then, after he’d recovered from surgery, re-enroll in the next cohort.

unspecified-1Chew and his wife having coffee at their home in Austin

Chew joined a new Galvanize cohort this past summer, and graduated at the end of this month. Now he plans to look for a job—but he’s still focused on finding a way to teach refugees to code. Having major surgery and facing the fragile nature of life only reaffirmed his thinking. “That experience led to me asking questions about what I really wanted my life to stand for,” Chew says. “The goal is to take displaced individuals and provide them with a viable alternative to provide for their family. Our hope is to empower them with skills they can take pride in, something that can be relevant wherever they might choose to relocate in their future.”

In fact, weeks before graduation, Chew was already pursuing his goal. Chew’s sister happens to work at a refugee resettlement agency in Austin, and Chew has discussed with her the idea of launching an informal coding group there a few nights a week. At that point, Chew will no longer just be thinking about the change he wants to see in the world—he’ll be living it.

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