Robin Máxkii mapped out the route she and two peers would take on their road trip.
Courtesy Robin Máxkii

A Code Road-Trip: A Summer of Exploration and Learning in a Green RV

Alysa Landry
11/3/16

A 38-foot green RV named Thelma—that’s what Robin Máxkii called home for four weeks during the summer of 2015. Máxkii, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians and a senior at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, was one of three rising computer scientists to spend their summer break driving across the United States.

The trip was part of a reality show airing this fall on PBS and produced by Microsoft and Roadtrip Nation, a career exploration organization that sends young professionals on the road to interview experts in their fields. Now in its 13th season, the program decided to focus on computer science and technology because of the glaring need for students—especially in rural areas—to have exposure to these opportunities, said Megan Dester, senior program manager for Roadtrip Nation.

“We decided to call it Code Trip and focus on the computer industry,” Dester said of the 2015 journey. “We wanted to get three people from underrepresented communities and showcase their path across the country as a way to inspire all young people to see the opportunities that exist in these fields.”

The appropriately named Code Trippers spent 28 days on the road, covering more than 5,000 miles and interviewing 20 experts from companies including Microsoft, Theranos, DefCon and Netflix. The journey began at Roadtrip Nation’s headquarters in Costa Mesa, California, and ended in Boston, where the crew interviewed a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Máxkii, 30. “It was both terrifying and eye-opening to call people and ask for an interview, and then sit down and talk to these industry leaders.”

The result was four, 30-minute episodes airing on PBS and available online. Footage not used in the episodes will be available for classroom use, Dester said.

The only Native on the trip, Máxkii was joined by two first-generation Americans—one from Brazil and the other from Mexico. Together with two producers, the young people learned to maneuver the RV and then set out on the road for an adventure designed to change their lives.

“The intent of the road trip—and the green RV—is to help individuals find their own road in life,” Dester said. “They go across the country to speak with individuals who have gone down similar paths and now do interesting things. The road trippers essentially see where they could end up or paths they may not have known about.”

Máxkii, a first-generation college student, stumbled into technology by accident. As a child, she split her time between Houston, Texas, and the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin, ultimately leaving home at age 15 to pursue a career as a film production assistant.

She earned an associate degree in 2014 from Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, and now is pursuing a double major in information technology and psychology. But “hacking,” or computer programming, was something she picked up on her own.

“As Natives, we don’t always have the ability to go to a lab or have access to technology,” she said. “In our homes, we don’t grow up with a lot of stuff, so we learn to hack. We learn how to do it ourselves. For me, I wanted my MySpace page to be sparkly, so I taught myself HTML.”

The Code Trip program came with a similar learning curve, Máxkii said. She didn’t meet her travel companions until they boarded the RV at the beginning of the journey. Then came another shock: the producers expected Máxkii to drive.

“Basically, I drove this thing across the country,” she said. “Before this, I had never heard of tailwind. I didn’t know how to empty the septic tank. Basically, I lived in this thing completely for a month with four strangers.”

Then came the task of parallel parking a 38-foot RV. Máxkii still won’t talk about that.

But the real action came when three aspiring professionals met with some of the top experts in their fields, Dester said. Code Trippers contacted entrepreneurs, CEOs and other leaders to schedule interviews, then pulled up at the appointed hour in their RV.

“That’s what makes our show unlike other reality shows,” Dester said. “Our goal is not to be flashy. We avoid drama. The show is about connecting young people with professionals.”

The crew scored 20 interviews as the RV meandered up the west coast, across the Midwest and into the metro areas of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Along the way, Máxkii fielded a fair number of questions directed at her.

“People told me I was the first Native they had ever met,” she said. “They asked why there aren’t more Natives in this field.”

Máxkii, who has aspirations of teaching at a tribal college someday, said Natives are natural hackers and innovators.

“We all have this hacking mentality, and curiosity fuels it,” she said. “If you’ve ever been cooking and didn’t have the right ingredient, you’ve hacked. If you sew and you improvised, you’ve hacked. Hacking—and technology—that’s about getting involved in solving problems in our communities.”

For Máxkii, the road trip ended both literally and symbolically at MIT, where she has decided to apply for graduate work.

“Before this trip, I was scared to apply to MIT,” she said. “Now it’s my dream. If I learned anything from Code Trip, it’s that it never hurts to try.”

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