Category Archives: Student to Workforce

NOVA Graduate Spotlight – Hispanic Heritage

Alec Vaca is a NOVA graduate who received an A.A.S. in Automotive from NOVA and later pursued a degree in HVAC before switching to an A.A.S. in Engineering Technology. He interned for Micron and worked there for 3 years. Afterward he interned for Digital Realty and is now employed full-time as an IT Manager. We caught up with him at the end of Hispanic Heritage month to ask about his experiences getting to where he is now and how NOVA helped him achieve his goals:

How did you first learn about NOVA?
I heard about NOVA during my Junior (11th) year in High School. Much of what I knew originally came from rumors of being a lesser-university experience for a much lower cost.

How were you first inspired in STEM?
My fascination with STEM originated also in my Junior year in High School when I took an automotive basics class and following my senior year in High School with a trade class for small engines. I thoroughly enjoyed understanding each component’s purpose in the overall picture of manipulating energy for a specific task.

Since joining NOVA, describe your experiences?
I have learned from industry experts who teach students, such as myself, with a passion to equip the future labor force. My experiences made in each lab have been stelar thanks to NOVA cultivating a healthy culture empowering my professors to teach to their best abilities.

How has NOVA equipped you in your career path?
NOVA has equipped me through many opportunities to advance my career, ranging from a plethora of degree-specific scholarships to unique Internship paths with global companies such as Micron Technology and Digital Realty.

How have you balanced work needs while pursuing your education?
Balancing a work life while pursuing an education is admittedly my greatest weakness. I have learned early on that it is possible but sacrifice to some “me” time is required. An effective balance usually means I cut down on recreation on my down time to finish deadlines from both work and school. I have been blessed to have considerate managers and professors, so that also is a huge weight off my shoulders!

What excites you about the technology industry?
The fact that we are in a unique time in the world where competition for the “latest & greatest” is at its peak.

You recently started a new job, Congratulations! Describe how you were able to secure the opportunity?
Thanks! I put into practice my persistence in finding opportunities that would benefit me and my goals. My first step was focusing more on my classes I was taking and to see what would suit my future aspirations in the workforce. Following this I took advantage of the Career Learning Readiness Institute (CLRI) training modules, offered by NOVA, for seeking employment and had the tremendous opportunity to tour STACK Infrastructure, which sealed the deal on which industry I would love to grow into. Finally, after discussing my aspirations to my professors, I was made aware of an opportunity to intern at a leading Data Center in Loudoun, which resulted in said company knowing who I was as an individual and vice versa.

What are your ultimate career goals?
I believe my ultimate career goal would be, as my father says, “Bloom where you’re planted”.

Are there any professors or mentors who you want to recognize along your journey?
My top three professors/mentors I have been fortunate to interact with would be Reginald Bennett for his passion to teach, Laura Garcia for her counseling and Amir Mehmood for his care for us the students.

What have you most enjoyed about your time at NOVA?
My best moments at NOVA have been struggling with other students to understand the material we must learn and the relationships that have sprouted from our conflicts. Nothing says comradery like a class of students working together to get to the next part of the lab!

How does your life in the professional world differ from life as a NOVA student? What are the expectations?
Learning a topic at NOVA, with physical labs included, is different from learning in the workforce. My classes give me a great foundational understanding of STEM concepts and the ability to test controlled sections of an area being explored. In the workplace, I can develop my skills I have learned, usually without control found in labs I have done at NOVA. As far as expectations go, at work I am expected to do my best and if I do not, then my team suffers the most. In my classes, I am expected to learn and if I fail to, then I alone suffer the most.

What would you say to current NOVA IET students who would like to follow your example? What should they do and what should they expect?
What worked for me was building relationships with my professors and classmates so I could learn more about who I was as a person and where I wanted to end up at. I would not be where I am today without pushing myself out of my comfort zone to look for opportunities, to which many professors are eager to help those seeking.

Is there anything else you want to share?
My parents often say a variation of “Cherish the good times and learn in the hard times”, which I find fitting.

 

Graduate Success Stories in Tech for Hispanic Heritage Month

Emily Reyna, a NOVA grad, recently worked as a STEM Support Specialist for NOVA SySTEMic before moving on to her dream job as a Tester at Bethesda Softworks, a AAA game studio. As part of her farewell she gave us some insights about her experience as a Latina pursuing an in-demand tech career.

How did you first learn about NOVA?

Growing up NOVA was a topic at all our family gatherings. My grandmother and grandfather worked here, close to their retiring my mom began working here, and now both my sister and I work here. In addition to work, I had the opportunity to see so much success come from our students as I grew up so I knew I would go to NOVA before finishing my degree at another institution.

How were you first inspired in STEM?

My teacher at Battlefield High School, Mr. Bishop, encouraged me to go into the STEM field by taking me through the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program and encouraging me to participate and assist in the SeaPerch robotics initiative. Towards the end of my high school experience, I had a meeting to discuss my future with Mr. Bishop and he encouraged me to go the computer science and graphic design route because I had an interest in becoming a video game designer.

You worked alongside the NOVA SySTEMic team. Describe your experience:

I have obtained a better grasp on all that goes into 3D modeling, laser cutting, and the importance of visualizing your subjects. In video games and out, visualizing what the object is you are working with and then being able to create it in 3D adds even more meaning to what you have made.

Having the opportunity to be amazed by the fabrication equipment, assist in the planning of curriculum for students, and seeing that curriculum put into action has been an extremely rewarding experience.

How has NOVA and NOVA SySTEMic equipped you in your career path?

NOVA and NOVA SySTEMic have opened my eyes to all the possibilities of the STEM world. From Disney using 3D modeling and fabrication to visualize their characters, to Marvel using Unity, a video game creation software, to add in backgrounds and special effects to their movies, it is amazing what technology can do. The STEM field is ever expanding and NOVA and NOVA SySTEMic have done an amazing job connecting their students to the STEM workforce and all that STEM can do for them.

How have you balanced work needs will pursuing your education?

Working at NOVA has been a significant help. The one saying I have heard over and over in every department, even those I have not worked closely with, is education comes first. If I need a day to focus on my schoolwork, NOVA is always able to accommodate and ensure I can get my work done.

What excites you about the gaming industry?

With the innovations in technology, I am extremely excited to see what comes next. In my research for my degree, I have found that doctors are using virtual reality tech to train and perform surgeries. It adds an additional layer of health safety by not requiring someone to be directly in the room and allows for even more accuracy than before. Robots, technology, and specifically video games are the future. While video games have a stigma of being dangerous, what the technology that goes into video games can do is astonishing and even life saving for some!

You recently secured a new job at Bethesda Softworks – Congratulations! How were you were able to secure the opportunity?

I have always said since I was in high school was, I am going to work for Bethesda Softworks, a AAA game studio. When searching for full-time positions, I saw they were looking for entry-level game testers and thought while I do not have the exact experience they want, I enjoy their games and the video game community so I would give it a shot. When they called back and were giving me the opportunity to work for them, I could not say no!

What are your ultimate career goals?

My ultimate career goal would be to get into a AAA company, Bethesda Softworks or otherwise, and become a game developer. What is nice about being a tester is I get to work with all the departments to share my findings on issues that could arise for other players. Hearing and seeing the experiences of those in the game field currently, game development suits what I see for myself in the future.

Are there any professors or mentors who you want to recognize along your journey?

Mr. Bishop encouraged me to get into the STEM field. While I had an interest in game design, I do not think I would have gone further into pursuing that field had I not taken his engineering classes and learning all that computer science and computer engineering has to offer.

I also want to recognize and thank Carolee Cawthon, the NOVA Manassas IT Manager, for sharing her knowledge, time, and care over the years while working for the college. I was always willing to learn, and she was willing to teach, and I appreciate my time with her and the NOVA IT team.

How does your life in the professional world differ from life as a NOVA student? What are the expectations?

One of the most rewarding parts about life in the professional setting is the ability to collaborate with industry professionals and learn from their experiences. In an educational setting you have a disconnect from your peers and have temporary teams with little emotional connection towards assisting each other’s goals. In the professional setting you are all working towards a common goal but also collaborate to assist in each other’s personal goals and always strive for the best for one another.

What is your experience as a woman/Latina in the tech fields? What further steps for equality would you like to see in general in technology fields?

The Latino community in the STEM field is very small and comes with many hurdles to finishing your degree. To start there is a strong language barrier between professor and student. While a professor intends to teach, often they do not take into a student’s background, upbringing, and how they were previously taught. Latino communities are very hands on, constant high-fives, hugs, words of encouragement, and even using food to encourage and collaborate amongst peers. Whether being homeschooled or in a public setting, many teachers supported their students by performing this action, but in a university setting, many professors are hands off, often providing a textbook definition.

Additionally, since a STEM degree is a very tough but financially worthwhile degree, much of the Latino community struggles to get by daily, let alone pay for schooling. Latino families send their children to school to get these IT and computer related degrees in hopes of them making a lot of money one day but soon realize it is near impossible to financially support their children’s dreams. The Latino community still has the mindset of keeping the women home or working in jobs that primarily focus on “womanly duties” as one might call them.

Being a Latina woman in STEM, I want to encourage and be an example for the Latino community. There are many programs and scholarships that encourage the Latina community. If there is something you set out for and dream about, NOVA and our NOVA SySTEMic team are always willing to help, much like they have done for me during my years of schooling and after.

What would you say to current NOVA IET students who would like to follow your example? What should they do and what should they expect?

Computer science is a difficult field to fully grasp and get in to. While some go into computer science with the intention of getting a lot of money, make sure you enjoy what you are doing, have fun along the way, and really grasp the information. Understanding is always the first step so ask for clarification as needed but look at some topics like a puzzle to solve.

 

STEM Camp Student to Instructor Spotlight: LisBeth Valladares Hernandez

STEM Camp Student to STEM Camp Instructor

Lisbeth G. Valladares Hernandez has been around NOVA and STEM for a long time. She was a STEM Camp student and now excels as a STEM Camp instructor. We asked her a few questions about her experience.

1. How were you first inspired in STEM? 

My journey in STEM began in 8th grade, when I decided to participate in The Micron Challenge: Rube Goldberg Machine. At the time I was the only student in my middle school that showed any interest, after listening to the announcement over the schools intercom. Thankfully I had two teachers that were willing to stay after school with me, my wood technology teacher and my science teacher. As I learned the many ways simple machine can be used in day-to-day challenges. It all became a game of intentionality and purpose. 

2. What did it take for you to get where you are? 

Once I started high school I knew I wanted to continue exploring more of what STEM consisted of. I once again convinced two teachers to help me out and bring SeaPerch Underwater ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) to my high school and for them to be my robotics club sponsor. I went out scouting my high school and personally invited people from diverse groups of friends to join underwater robotics with me. 

3. Describe your experience as a minority woman in STEM.

Being in STEM as a minority women has not been easy, specially because a lot of this is unknown territory for my parents. They have simply trusted in me, that my passions are rooted in knowledge seeking and educational growth. As a first generation student I have had to go out and find resources and financial assistance to be able to participate in STEM activities. My parents have supported me through it all, they have sacrificed so much for me.

Being a women in STEM has been hard because I have been in positions where my voice is the only female voice in the room at times. It takes a special kind of courage to pave the way, and I am proud of myself for having done so for other Latinas that follow. 

I also have to thank Zuzana Steen from Micron and Aleksander Marthinussen from NOVA SySTEMic. Although I only saw them in the judges chair, they always affirmed me to continue my academic career in STEM.

Without people like them or my teacher my STEM journey would not have lasted this long. 

4. What you want to pass on as an instructor and where you want to go in your career?

The reason I was inspired to become an educator is because of all of those teachers along my STEM journey that sacrificed their time after school to sit with me and even if they didn’t fully understand what I was doing. I want to be that teacher for others and pay back my community. 

5. How has NOVA and NOVA SySTEMic equipped you in your career path?

Having been a dual enrolled student with NOVA lead me to NOVA SySTEMic, after working on the engineering challenge during the semester, I was handed a poster and guided to check out the summer camp and apply for the internship positions. 

Since then I have had the wonderful opportunity to participate as an assistant instructor in summer camp, assist in Expo events, create STEM in-class curriculum, develop and present teacher professional development, and lead as Head Coach for the NOVA VEX IQ Community Teams, winning 2nd place at the VEX Robotics State Championship and qualifying for the World Championship this year! 

I am excited to see what my STEM Journey has in store for me. All of this would not be possible without NOVA SySTEMic and its amazing opportunities for someone like me. 

Student To Workforce Spotlight: Fandrea Tinsley

Fandrea Tinsley is a NOVA graduate who has been hired by Wal-Mart Cyber at a recruitment event after completing a NOVA IET resume and interview prep session. We thought we’d ask her a few questions and get some insights about her new career and how NOVA helped along the way.

1) Why is Cybersecurity important?

In the technology age that we live within, cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important because so many things connect to the internet (almost everything). Any device that connects to the internet can potentially be hacked! Since so many people use the internet daily the threat landscape is vast. This being the case, cybersecurity is not only important in our society but necessary.

2) What got you into Cybersecurity?

My husband, Farod! He is a NOVA alumnus and completed the same cybersecurity program in 2018. After which, he transferred to George Washington University (GWU) to complete his bachelor’s degree. I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after conceiving our second son in 2019. While going through chemotherapy treatment, following our son’s birth, Farod recommended that I switch to cyber from the nursing program in which I’d previously been enrolled at Germanna Community College. I took a while to think about it but ultimately decided to take the leap due to me being at high risk during the height of Covid-19. Looking back, I can say that it has turned out to be one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made… thanks Farod!

3) What was your general experience at NOVA?

My general experience at NOVA was great! I’d taken some classes at NOVA when I was younger, directly after high school, but did not finish a degree program. As a returning student, I feel that I was better able to fully understand the importance of what NOVA has to offer and take advantage of this time around.

4) What did you enjoy most about your time at NOVA?

Everything! I enjoyed every class, every lab, every Saturday meeting with the AllCyber club, and forming relationships with classmates. All my professors were exceptional, and I appreciate EVERYTHING that they did to prepare me for the cybersecurity industry. They mentored and advised me until the very end and are one of the main reasons why I received this opportunity with Walmart Infosec.

5) How did NOVA IET help you get started along your career path?

NOVA IET provided me with all the knowledge, tools, and guidance to be successful in the cybersecurity industry. I continuously review everything that I have learned, in my mind, and apply this knowledge to every professional situation that I encounter. I feel that NOVA IET has really prepared me well and positioned me on the path to have a successful career.

6) What was your experience with the NOVA IET team, particularly with Dean Paula Ford?

My experience with the NOVA IET team was one of consistency and support. Throughout my entire experience, I received the same level of follow up, support, mentorship, and career counseling. Dean Paula Ford was an instrumental part of my NOVA IET team through her avocation for me and thoughtful leadership. Professor Kwabena Konodu followed up with me on a weekly basis to provide counseling and to ensure that my plan remained on track. A major part of my success so far is due to my NOVA IET team, and I really appreciate all of them.

7) What skills did you pick up from the mock interview, and how did it prepare you effectively for the real thing with Wal-Mart?

The mock interview helped to prepare me for the real thing by allowing me to “practice before the game”. I’ve been in other interviews over the years, but this was my first time preparing for a cybersecurity interview. The mock interview reinforced my confidence, bearing, and taught me how to structure my answers appropriately. This practice helped me a great deal to be prepared for the real thing, and I know that I would not have felt as confident as I did during my interview with Walmart Infosec, if I hadn’t participated in the mock interview.

8) Describe your confidence going into the interview, your mindset.

I would describe myself as a naturally confident person, and due to me having participated in the mock interview and all the preparation and support that I received from my NOVA IET team, I felt extra confident. I visualized myself already having the job before I even sat down for the interview.

9) Describe the full interview process with Wal-mart. What went well in the interview and what might you do differently?

As much as I tried not to look nervous during my interview, I am sure that I did. However, I’ve been told that I did well. Part of my interview consisted of my interviewer asking about me, my background, my skill set(s) and ambitions. I pride myself on my soft skills and communication, so I think that this part of the interview went very well. The other part of the interview was technical. Prepared as I was, I knew that I didn’t answer every question correctly. However, anything that I wasn’t totally familiar with, or unsure of, I confidently responded that I knew where to find the information and that I am always willing to learn more. I really think that the interviewer liked that.

10) How did your resume help you? Why was it effective? How did your employer refer to it to ask you questions?

My resume was effective in that it helped to get me in the door. My interviewer referenced my resume when asking me questions, for which I was prepared, and questions that weren’t related to my resume as well. Overall, I consider the process a valuable learning experience.

11) What do you do at Wal-mart on a day-to-day basis (that you can comfortably share) and what do you enjoy most about it?

Well, since I just recently began my Walmart Infosec journey, I am still in the research/study phase. My Walmart Infosec team has shown me a warm welcome and I am so excited to be a part of this organization. I look forward to getting to know my teammates better as we work closely alongside each other.

12) How did NOVA prepare you to meet the technical demands of your job?

The cybersecurity program at NOVA is top of the line. Through classroom lectures and work that covers every domain within IT and cybersecurity, rigorous and realistic lab assignments, the AllCyber professional cybersecurity organization, and continuous career coaching and mentorship I feel very prepared to meet professional technical demands. Regarding my job, I have a foundational understanding of all the information that I have been presented with so far, which is an advantage to me.

13) How do soft skills and interpersonal communication play into the interview process and in your job from day to day?

Soft skills and communication skills play a huge part during an interview and on the job. To truly be a team player these skills should be almost second nature. Honestly, I believe that I’ve made it this far relying largely on my soft skills and communication. As I continue to increase my technical prowess, my interpersonal skills enable me to continuously communicate with others, identify needs, and remain an asset.

14) How does your life in the professional world differ from life as a NOVA student? What are the expectations?

Well, prior to entering tech I’d accumulated years of professional work experience in the healthcare industry. Having such experience over the years has fine tuned my work ethic and drive. So, I applied that same work ethic and drive to my studies, and I continue to do so in the professional tech world in hopes that it will continue to serve me well. One difference that I have noticed however, is the level and types of expectation. In school it is understood that assignments must be completed, quizzes and tests must be taken, and regular attendance is expected. In the professional world, some of that stuff doesn’t exist and a lot of expectation is placed on results. I’ve welcomed the challenges from both environments.

15) What are your ultimate career goals?

Well, I’ve already achieved one of my goals having been offered this great opportunity with Walmart Infosec. I think, as of now, I will just continue to focus, buckle down, and see where this journey takes me. I feel that my journey will be more exciting that way! Plus, this exploratory way of thinking about the future of my career seems unrestricting and totally freeing. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

16) What is your experience as a woman in the tech fields? What further steps for equality would you like to see in general in technology fields?

Since my start in tech, I have noticed a strong movement of women entering technology spaces. While I realize the tech industry is still predominantly male occupied, it is exciting to see and know females like me that go out there and pursue their dreams regardless of what others may think or traditional gender roles. If this movement continues to progress, I definitely see the future of tech being very bright for everyone, regardless of gender.

17) What would you say to current NOVA IET students who would like to follow your example? What should they do and what should they expect?

Network, network, network! I personally attended every hiring event available and pursued every opportunity offered to me. Additionally, ensure that you are prepared for these opportunities so as to present the best in you while taking advantage of them. You never know what’s waiting for you behind that next door.

18) And a fun one: Do you watch any TV shows about Cyber (Mr. Robot for example)? What does entertainment get right and wrong when they portray Cyber agents and hackers?

I don’t typically watch a lot of TV, but I have seen cyber related television programs and movies. Prior to entering cybersecurity, the explanation of actors/actresses portraying cyber roles seemed extremely technical and difficult to grasp. But now, if I don’t know exactly what one of these characters is saying, I can at least piece together what they are referring to. Being able to do that is so awesome and makes me feel like I am part of a special club, lol. However, I feel that these roles may sometimes take it a little overboard and not portray the human side of cyber players.

19) Anything important to add that we might have missed?

No, I think that you generally covered everything across the board. I just want to reiterate how appreciative I am for this opportunity, and I encourage everyone striving for a career in cybersecurity to keep pursuing their goals and “stay the course”! If I can do this, you can too!