As a young mother with two small children, Natasha Santiago-Body struggled to juggle parenthood, a job, and her studies. Her own mother could identify: She had been just 16 when Santiago-Body was born and often left her children in their grandmother’s care so she could earn a degree to become a registered nurse and, later, to return to school to add computer and project management skills to her resume.

She pushed Santiago-Body to complete her education, but balancing school with work and the demands of life was just too much.

“In part because of the experience I had growing up, I didn’t want to feel like I’d be picking everything else over my children. I wanted to be present for them,” Santiago-Body said. “I just needed to focus on one or the other.”

So while she prioritized spending time with her children, she set her studies aside and worked her way up in a variety of jobs in retail and in the banking and financial industry, eventually managing people with college degrees even though she didn’t have one. But now that her children are older — her son is in college and her daughter is a junior in high school — Santiago-Body, at age 37, is back in school. And while she and her husband are both working full-time, she is determined to earn a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity risk management, one online class at a time.

Like so many adult students served by The American Women’s College of Bay Path University, Santiago-Body checks many boxes to describe her situation: Some college; no degree. Historically underrepresented by race, gender, or both. Working adult. Mom. But like her classmates at the small, private university in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, she sees these boxes and the hurdles they represent shrinking and a clear path ahead in her education and career journey. That’s thanks in part to the flexibility and support she’s finding at The American Women’s College — the nation’s first online, accelerated college degree program designed just for women.

The college’s innovative program brings adult women like Santiago-Body back to school — even as some are working full-time jobs and managing new family responsibilities in the midst of a devastating pandemic. The goal is to equip more women with the technical and professional skills they need to transition from unemployment or low-income jobs into the well-paid, in-demand fields of cybersecurity and information technology — improving learners’ economic mobility while helping employers expand their talent pool. The work is supported through a $1.6 million, three-year grant from Strada Education Network.

“We really see it as our responsibility to make sure we can help our students get to a point where they can change their economic circumstances,” said Amanda Gould, vice president for learning innovation, analytics, and technology at Bay Path. “We want to make sure we are empowering these women through education and workforce development so they can have long and sustainable professional careers throughout a lifetime.”

Students in Bay Path’s program are among the 77 million Americans competing in the labor market without the benefit of a college degree. But they are now part of a community of adult learners progressing on stronger pathways between education and careers — pathways where every student receives individualized coaching and mentoring, where college credit for prior learning is a given, and where employers help write the curriculum. Industry-recognized credentials stack toward bachelor’s degrees in the program and work-based learning, networking, and mentoring are built-in.

Here are six approaches Bay Path recommends to help more adults earn degrees and enter careers in technology:

Develop relationships with potential employers first, then nurture them continuously.

To ensure skills alignment between what is sought in the labor market and what is taught in the classroom, Bay Path forges strong relationships with employers, who inform them on their specific talent needs, agree on a common skills language, collaborate to write the curriculum, and support students at every step, including hiring them once they graduate.

Relationship-building is key, Gould said, because employers are often the go-to partners helping educators break down any unexpected barriers students encounter along the way.

“We know it’s not a one-and-done exercise. It’s important to continuously build on those relationships,” she said. “Industry is always changing, and their needs are changing, so we always circle back. And our employer partners are very responsive to our students’ needs. They are invested in their future and want them to succeed.”

Place career coaching at the beginning of the educational path — and never stop coaching.

At Bay Path, career coaching begins during the admissions process, before classes start, and continues throughout college and beyond graduation to help guide learners throughout their careers.

That approach is validated by Bay Path’s success metrics: Students who get career coaching early in the process matriculate at a rate of 88.7 percent while in the program. Early career coaching also provides an opportunity for coaches and counselors to talk to students about skills, training, industry certificates, and experience they already have, translating their prior learning into college credit even before they begin their studies at Bay Path.

“Many students don’t understand the value of the skills they have, or they don’t know they can get credit for what they already know, saving them time and money,” Gould said. “A counselor can quickly award credit for recognized industry credentials, or help a student submit a portfolio for evaluation.” And these conversations throughout their time at Bay Path help students better articulate their skills on their resumes and during job interviews.

Beverly Benson, program director for information technology and security at The American Women’s College, also credits coaching with keeping both students and faculty engaged and focused on the end goal. “I get really involved, so if I feel my students need a little nudge or encouragement, I reach out to them,” she said, “and they know my mantra is ‘Dare to dream.’”

Provide financial support.

In addition to traditional scholarships, Bay Path points students toward paid internships and jobs where they can gain experience in tech fields and earn while they study. But for many — including the one-third of students at The American Women’s College who are single mothers — there is just not enough time in a day to work full-time, care for their children, and study, let alone add a part-time internship.

“Even if they can find the time, they can’t forgo their day job and their steady wages to get the experience they need in another field. They’re stuck,” Gould said. “We have to think creatively and reimagine what internships look like for these students.” Bay Path now bakes project-based learning into the curriculum, using online simulations and virtual internships where students engage with employers and receive feedback as they work together to solve real-world problems.

Focus on developing skills — technical as well as those formerly known as “soft skills.”

As important as mastering the latest technology is learning communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills.

Bay Path exposes all technology students to foundational skills typically included in liberal arts programs, adding skills like critical thinking and teamwork to their technical know-how. And, based on feedback from employer partners across multiple career paths, the school is also doing the reverse — incorporating technical skills training into its liberal arts program, giving those students an edge in the job market as well.

Incorporate stackable industry credentials into the path to a college degree.

In an era when so many resumes are scanned by computer programs that quickly eliminate job candidates lacking degrees or specific technology certifications, it’s important to take a “both-and” approach, incorporating industry-recognized credentials into the bachelor’s degree path.

Bay Path maps the skills that matter most in the information technology and cybersecurity workplace and guides students toward certifications that will make them more attractive to employers. “We don’t offer a course in every single technology, but we can offer our students an entry point to obtain that training and then give them college credit for it,” Gould said.

Create networking and mentoring opportunities.

Even though students are studying in a virtual environment, the school emphasizes the importance of building a strong professional network and works with community-based organizations to pair students with mentors in the professions they are transitioning into. This critical support network helps students build the social capital they will need to gain entry into great jobs and to continue to progress throughout their careers.

Gould said this is especially important for women of color, who have been underrepresented in the tech workforce. “Having mentors who look like them and share some of their life experiences helps to build confidence,” she said, “and it makes all the difference.”

Grateful for the financial and professional support she’s received at Bay Path and in her working life, Santiago-Body said she plans to pay it forward once she earns her degree by mentoring other women as well as men interested in cybersecurity careers. So many people are intimidated by technology, she said, “but it’s not as scary as people think. It’s very lucrative — there will always be growth and opportunity — and it’s imperative to our nation, period.”

For Santiago-Body, going back to complete her degree honors both her mother — who died in 2016 before seeing her daughter enter Bay Path — as well as her husband and children. “My mom understood the potential I had, and I did, too. I always wanted this,” she said. “It’s important that my children see I’m still following through.”

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