Going Back to School the Debt-free Route

Going Back to School the Debt-free Route

Vi Nguyen currently works part-time at Nordstrom and is finishing up a Master of Science in Computer Science degree at Northeastern University’s Seattle campus in South Lake Union. She will transition to a full-time employee at Nordstrom after graduation.

[This sponsored article was published in The Stranger October 2017]

The emails arrived unexpectedly as the two college seniors were preparing for life and work after graduation.

“It said, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into Northeastern University’s Computer Science ALIGN program’,” Susanna Edens recalled. “I thought it was spam.”

Edens, who was nearing completion of a Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degree at Northeastern University in Boston, saw the sender’s name and realized it was from the dean of the university’s College of Computer and Information Science program. Maybe the email’s intriguing offer was legit.

“I asked around, and a few other people had also received it,” Edens said, as we drank coffee and chatted near Northeastern’s Seattle campus in the heart of the South Lake Union neighborhood. “They were offering a free lunch, so I went.”

Two-and-a-half years later, Edens has nearly completed a master’s degree in computer science and has received two job offers. Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

Northeastern University is a top 40-ranked school based in Boston and began establishing regional campuses about six years ago, strategically matching the campuses’ degree offerings to the needs of the local workforce. Launching a program like Computer Science ALIGN in Seattle was a no-brainer. It offers non-tech majors the opportunity to go straight into the Master of Science in Computer Science program in a city where there is a shortage of tech workers, but a thriving, creative and diverse community. Seattle is also an attractive city for East Coasters like Edens, who moved here for the program. In addition to Seattle, Northeastern campuses in Charlotte and Silicon Valley enroll students in a variety of graduate programs that reflect their local economy.

The rationale for programs like ALIGN and a regional focus on workforce needs grew from Northeastern University’s longstanding mission of getting students established on career paths before they graduate. Since its inception in 1898, Northeastern wanted to ensure its graduates were prepared for the working world. Sure, the school values education for education’s sake. But, the administration asked, what good is knowledge to its alums if they don’t have a job?

Very little. So, Northeastern devised the co-op program. Commonly referred to as “an internship on steroids,” the co-op program helps three parties. Students gain hands-on experience, doing actual work while getting, yes, paid. Businesses get a chance to work directly with students, gain confidence in their abilities, and determine whether they might become long-term employees. And they usually do—so far, every Northeastern University-Seattle student who sought a co-op received one. Better yet, 100 percent of ALIGN students have found employment after graduation. These job offers usually come from their co-op employer. And for Northeastern itself, what’s a better way to showcase its stature than by producing market-ready graduates?

None of that was on Vy Nguyen’s mind in spring of 2015.

“I got the email too,” she laughed when I mentioned Susanna’s story. “Yeah, I wasn’t sure about it, either. But they said we got a lunch, so I went.”

Nguyen, like Edens, was about to graduate. Neither senior knew what was next.

“I majored in biology, with a minor in art,” Nguyen said. “I had done my undergrad co-op as a research tech, but didn’t have a job lined up. The offer to come to Seattle was too good to ignore.”

She wasn’t alone. Four of the 20 women who received the offer accepted it, including Edens (NOTE: Edens identifies as agender and prefers “they/them” pronouns).

“I knew [from undergrad co-ops] that lab work wasn’t for me,” they said. “But I didn’t know anything about computer science. No one had ever presented it as an option.”

The economic explosion in Seattle, fueled by Amazon’s unprecedented building and hiring spree, has placed a premium on people who can code.

Salaries for Northeastern’s CS master’s program graduates begin at $100,000 or more. A career that combines excellent pay with the satisfaction of “solving problems,” as Nguyen enthused, is attractive to many people, of course, not simply the limited number of folks with computer-science backgrounds. That is, demand exceeds supply. Which is why Northeastern introduced the ALIGN program.

Think of ALIGN as a bridge, a route for people who don’t know computer science to gain an understanding of the discipline. It takes these college grads—whether they majored in bio, health sciences, or Russian history—and puts them through the paces for a year. The math, computer theory, and foundational courses are all designed to get people into the two-year master’s program.

Though Edens and Nguyen came straight out of their undergraduate studies, a large percentage of ALIGN students come from various industries and are looking for a career change. Computer Science ALIGN allows them to switch careers without necessarily starting from the bottom again. A master’s degree and work experience on your resume sets tech job seekers apart from those who have chosen the boot camp route. It can be life changing. So, how is it for people unversed in the CS world?

“I was nervous,” admitted Edens. “But thanks to Theo, I realized about two-thirds of the way through the first semester that I liked it.”

Theo—Therapon Skoteiniotis, a senior software developer at Amazon before he joined the Northeastern-Seattle faculty—“made me grow, and I value that,” Edens said. “I mean, he pushed me hard. Challenged my limits.

“But I wouldn’t have made it without him.”

Nguyen agreed.

“He answered all my questions and explained everything well. Theo’s a great communicator.”

Faculty members like Skoteiniotis, with a long background in the industry, are integral to the Computer Science ALIGN program’s success. Yes, professors are a big part of the college experience, but who better to prepare someone for software development than a software developer? Skoteiniotis recently went back to work for Amazon to work on new projects, but he still teaches part-time on campus. This means he’ll have more wisdom and fresh perspectives to share with his students.

And after ALIGN has bridged any technical skills gap, ALIGN students head to co-op positions at big-name companies: among many, places such as Zillow, Facebook, Microsoft, and of course, Amazon.

“A lot of people in my cohort spent their co-ops there,” chuckled Nguyen, who has worked for Nordstrom since this summer. “I made enough money in my co-op that I’ll hardly have any debt when I graduate.”

She is part of a team modernizing the sales system at the retailer, moving the data services to the Cloud. Once her team is finished, the old system will be taken down and the new one will run the show.

Nguyen is on schedule to graduate in December, but she’ll continue at Nordstrom.

“They told me they wanted me to stay on permanently, in my third week there,” the Philadelphia native stated.

Her story is not unique. Many have their choice of jobs. Edens is currently weighing offers from Amazon and Google.

“I’m not sure, but I told Google I would not return to Sunnyvale” (a city outside San Jose, where they interned this summer). “It’s too sterile. I’ll probably head back east”—their family’s in New Jersey—“after finishing school next May.”

“And I loved working here at Amazon on AWS Marketplace, which sells third-party software on the cloud,” Edens said. “My team was great. They seemed committed to diversity. That’s one of the things I like about Seattle, too—I felt comfortable, especially because of the large queer/trans community.” (As for dislikes about Seattle, both Edens and Nguyen mentioned—surprise–the weather. The more things change …)

As we hurtle into the future–where software skills will be even more important and valuable–Northeastern’s ALIGN program provides security for people returning to school or changing careers. It’s a second chance for those that thought it was too late or they weren’t the right fit for tech, with little risk after graduation of not getting a job or having a big burden of student loans.

Tech changes every day; Northeastern University fills an important role in aligning employers and workers. And the rewarding path begins at the college level, where Northeastern helps people like Edens and Nguyen realize their potential and, best of all, begin a career.

Learn more about the Align Computer Science program here.


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