Guest Post: “We’re Not Second Class Students”

On Wednesday afternoon, we all crowded outside the exhibit hall counting down the minutes till the doors opened, as if awaiting a Black Friday sale. As a returning student in the midst of a career change, the Grace Hopper Celebration’s career fair was particularly exciting for me — hundreds of companies came to GHC to recruit for their internship programs. Over the years, the GHC career fair has served as a launchpad for many successful women in the tech industry, and that fact filled me with optimism.

By Friday, I had met countless amazing women studying, teaching, and working in many different facets of technology, but my optimism surrounding my internship prospects had waned. Several of the companies that I spoke with in the career fair would not hire community college students as interns. Regardless of the skills I was learning, my educational path didn’t fit their mold.

I carpeted the career fair with my resume and walked out with no interview offers. A few companies told me that they might be able to make an exception. But consider how many people won’t even apply when they see that they’re pursuing the “wrong” degree, and how many others will apply only to have their resumes instantly filtered out. Exceptionalism does not fix a broken system.

At a conference centered around diversity, it was jarring to experience such an exclusionary policy. Closing off internships to community college students disproportionately affects students of color, lower-income students, and students who are supporting families. These internships can lead into full-time employment, and we are being denied that opportunity. Tell me again how there’s a pipeline problem.

These internships can lead into full-time employment, and we are being denied that opportunity. Tell me again how there’s a pipeline problem.

So why do so many companies have this policy? It is a shortcut based on outmoded assumptions about the intelligence of community college students. Some of these policies likely hail from a time when a bachelor’s degree was more affordable. (To put it in perspective, tuition at the school where I earned my BA seven years ago has risen about 50 percent since I was there. This is part of a nationwide trend.) For many of us, the decision to attend community college versus a four-year college is based largely on affordability, scheduling flexibility, and practical application of skills. In any event, it is not a reflection of a lesser capacity to learn, problem-solve, or work well in a team. We are not second-class students, and we should not be treated as such.

Tech companies with these policies: you have nothing to lose by opening up internships to associate degree students. I’ve often heard from industry professionals on hiring newcomers, “I can teach technical skills. I can’t teach passion.” Community college students bring both. We are well-rounded in our work experience and educational background. The decision to change careers and return to school is life-altering: we leave behind our old careers, take on financial risk, and recalibrate our schedules to devote our waking hours to learning. If that isn’t a demonstration of passion and dedication, I don’t know what is.

Bio:

Kathryn Sweet is a network security student at Madison Area Technical College and a 2015 Grace Hopper scholar. She also has a BA in gender and women’s studies from Knox College. Kat connects professionally on LinkedIn and quips unprofessionally on Twitter.