For more than 16 years, Katherine Watkins worked as a nursing assistant at a hospital where she spent 12-hour shifts bathing and comforting sick children.

But by the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the divorced mother of four was ready to step toward a new career — one that would offer a higher salary, and take less of a physical and emotional toll. “I needed a change to support my own mental health and be more present for my children,” Watkins said.

Today Watkins has completed her bachelor’s degree in software development at Green River College outside Seattle, and she already has been hired by Costco Wholesale as a software engineer.

In addition to her own tenacity, Watkins credits Green River’s program, which couples real-world experience in classroom projects with trained, experienced tech industry mentors who guide the students as they launch careers in tech. Initially, those relationships might focus on technology know-how, but as they evolve, the mentors often form the beginning of students’ first professional network and help them prepare for job interviews and career transitions.

The program is poised to be particularly beneficial for students at an institution such as Green River. Obtaining an internship in software engineering is a competitive process, with more than 100,000 students nationwide vying for a few thousand positions that, critics say, mostly go to students at top computing colleges and those with existing industry connections.

“There’s that little last mile that we’re trying to help them cross over, and in many places students are kind of on their own to figure that out,” said Ken Hang, a software development instructor at Green River College. “Having mentors be here and present and helping them with those last steps means a lot.”

Green River taps into a stable of industry professionals through Mentors in Tech, or MinT, a Seattle-based social impact program developed in collaboration with local colleges, including Green River. Mentors in Tech recruits tech industry veterans from the region’s robust tech industry to mentor students at the area’s small, affordable, open-access colleges. The partnership between Green River and Mentors in Tech, or MinT, is supported in part by a $400,000 grant from Strada’s Employer and Community College Partnership Challenge.

MinT provides a structured approach to mentorship for both students and mentors in part by clearly outlining expectations. Green River makes the experience more beneficial for students by assigning them to work with mentors on projects based on open source software. More than 90 percent of all computer programs include open source software, which may be developed in a collaborative, open and public manner, enabling students to include their contributions on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles and describe it to prospective employers.

“An overwhelming majority of our students don’t know many people in the industry,” Hang said. “Working with mentors, students have a direct connection to someone who’s actively in the industry right now.”

For Watkins’ first open source software project, she was paired with mentor Marianne Goldin, a veteran software engineer who, like Watkins, came to the field after a career pivot. “Being a mentor is a really valuable experience because I see so much of my own path in others”,” Goldin said. “For me, this career has changed my whole life completely, and I want that for other people.”

The two women first worked together in fall 2022, when Goldin and another mentor were paired with Watkins’ classroom group for an open source software project. “Marianne encouraged us to take ownership of the issue that we were working on,” Watkins recalled. “That’s helpful for me because I learn most by doing, so having to problem-solve and learn these things to facilitate fixing a problem is kind of how I learn.”

A year later, as Watkins’ classroom group was about to embark on its capstone project, she requested to again be paired with Goldin. With Watkins nearing graduation, their relationship took a different form.

Goldin advised Watkins on how to prepare to interview for an internship, and near the conclusion of the internship, when Watkins had an opportunity to share her work with the chief information officer, Goldin helped her prepare for the presentation. They also staged a mock interview to prepare for Watkins’ job search.

“As I continue to work with her, I realized that she was not about to be floored by pretty much anything,” Goldin said. “This might sound like a cliche, but whereas I thought I was going to teach her something, I’ve actually learned a lot from her.”

And now, as Watkins launches her new career in tech, she not only has a new job, a new college degree, and more security for her family, but also a professional relationship she hopes to nourish and grow.

“Having these people that are cheering for you and helping you move forward,” Watkins said, “has meant everything to me.”