Heritage High School cybersecurity teacher Bill Carter’s classroom is full of computers, but there’s one in the corner of the room that looks different from the others. A glass casing exposes the crisscrossing wires, machine components, and multicolored lights that comprise the body of the PC, and angular spines adorn the top like something out of a science-fiction movie. Perhaps just as striking as the computer’s unique makeup is the message on the index card taped to its side: “Student project. Please sit elsewhere today.”
The machine is the work of Heritage High tenth grader Aliyah Thurman, who started piecing it together from scratch at the end of her ninth-grade year. A few months into the new school year, she’s ready to call the PC finished—well, mostly. When praised for her handiwork, Aliyah shifts the focus instead to the little details she has yet to perfect. But behind her humble demeanor is a sense of accomplishment.
Aliyah designed the PC with a transparent body, making it easy to see inside.
“It’s cool to look at this PC and think, ‘Wow, I did that.’ There were obstacles to push through, but this project taught me patience,” Aliyah said. “Mr. Carter helped me fight the urge to give up when things got too difficult.”
Aliyah was walking through the halls of Heritage High during her freshman orientation when she happened upon Carter’s classroom.
“I didn’t know anything about computers before I started this class my freshman year. But I saw this class and said, ‘This is where I want to be,’” Aliyah said.
Aliyah rapidly absorbed the course curriculum, earning an A in Intro to Cybersecurity. Hungry for more, she routinely finished her classwork early and asked if there were any PCs she could work on. Carter started assigning her side projects, starting with small duties like installing disk drives into computers. Aliyah completed each with gusto, leaning on Carter for guidance when she got stuck.
“Sometimes, a student comes along who has such an inner fire that all you can do is step back, let them do their thing, and support them however possible,” Carter said. “She’s been after me since the first week she spent in this classroom, asking for extra work. She learned how to build this PC by osmosis.”
Carter has become a mentor to Aliyah over the past year and a half.
When Aliyah proposed her idea to build a PC from scratch, Carter started scavenging parts for her, mustering what he could from other computers and classroom supplies. She quickly got to work constructing her computer, calling on Carter and occasionally other students for help along the way.
“99 out of 100 students would have walked away from this project. At one point, someone accidentally broke the pin off the motherboard, and she had to start over,” Carter said. “Aliyah is so bright. She’s delightful and high-energy, but she’s also tenacious—she can garner herself and focus. She overcame so many obstacles to finish this PC.”
Carter has helped students build computers before, but not under these circumstances. Building a PC is normally an Advanced Computer Systems Technology senior project, done with the help of a budget and teammates. But he was committed to helping Aliyah’s vision come to life.
“Students need more than just teachers. They need mentors. Mr. Carter has been a bright light in Aliyah’s life,” said Latonya Thurman, Aliyah’s mother. “She knows she can count on him, even if she just needs someone to talk to. He’s been a rock for her.”
Aliyah shows her mother the PC she built.
Since childhood, Aliyah has been fascinated with learning how machines work. She dreams of becoming an automotive engineer and plans to start taking automotive technology classes next year. Aliyah is confident the knowledge she’s gained from Carter will serve as a solid foundation as she transitions from computers to cars.
Both cybersecurity and automotive engineering are heavily male-dominated fields. In both cybersecurity classes Aliyah has taken, she’s been the only girl.
“We need more women in STEM. I think being a woman and pursuing automotive engineering is really strong,” Aliyah said.
But PCs are more than a stepping stone to the automotive industry for Aliyah. An avid desktop gamer, she’s wanted her own PC for years, but couldn’t afford one.
By the time Aliyah had transformed her pile of parts into a working PC, Carter had an idea. Aliyah’s birthday was coming up, and what better gift than the computer she’d worked so hard to design? She’d been using it in class, but Carter wanted her to be able to bring it home and call it her own. He called Latonya, and she agreed to buy the PC for an affordable price.
“She built the PC without any regard to whether she’d end up with the computer or not. We wanted her to have it,” Carter said.
Aliyah was sitting in class one October morning when her mom walked in with hands full of birthday balloons. Her face flashed with confusion, then recognition, then disbelief as Carter and Latonya delivered the news: the PC was hers to keep. The next few minutes were a blur of hugs and happy tears.
Latonya and Carter coordinated with Heritage High principal Tim Beatty to surprise Aliyah with the PC as a birthday gift.
“I’m proud of Aliyah. You don’t know how happy I am—this is a big thing for her. I’m grateful for teachers like Mr. Carter who’ve pushed her and cheered her on over the years,” Latonya said.
Carter’s class is part of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program at Lynchburg City Schools, through which middle and high school students like Aliyah get unique hands-on experience in career fields of their choice. In addition to cybersecurity and automotive technology, students can pursue carpentry, nursing, machining, culinary arts, cosmetology, dentistry, and more.