computer science student Lillian Ahles inside smiling and facing camera

Lillian Ahles is a Computer Science student at NHCC. In addition to being a student, she’s also a wife, mother, stepmother, and a full-time factory worker. Lillian had tried college in the past, but her plate was full and family responsibilities made it challenging. But even though school had once been tough for her, she noted, “I still saw a future for myself outside of working in the factories.” Once her kids grew up, she told herself she wanted to go back to school. “Now I realized, my kids are about to leave, and I shouldn’t stop myself from succeeding.” She then enrolled at NHCC and tried out a few programs, before ending up where she is today in Computer Science. Lillian credit’s her current success with joining NHCC’s ‘Be Bold Break the Mold’ program, (an NHCC initiative program that connects female students in nontraditional career pathways, such as construction, or computer science with a mentor, a stipend and a motivational community to help them along the way). Continue reading the Q&A below to discover Lillian’s NHCC story and how she found self-confidence and motivation in the ‘Be Bold Break the Mold’ program.

What was your experience like when you started school at NHCC?

When I first decided to come to NHCC, I started in the nursing program. I then realized that I’m not a nurse and I decided to try graphic design, for something more creative. That was too tough for me to handle along with my full-time job, so I looked into online degree programs. At the time, it was either accounting or computer science at NHCC. Accounting was super boring to me, but computer science was intriguing. The second I learned, ‘Oh my goodness, I can build something in this program and actually do it,’ I was sold! I liked the fact that I could work privately on computer science and do it and fail and no one would be affected, but me. I think women are afraid to fail, but not me. I’ve been a tomboy my whole life, I’ve fallen down and gotten back up so many times. If I create something bad, I get feedback and make it better. I like creating programs to fix the tedious work that people dread. I even created a user interface to collect and organize data. I feel powerful doing this work. It feels good to create things that help people.

How did you find out about the Be Bold Break the Mold program and what does it entail?

One day I heard about NHCC’s Be Bold Break the Mold program and that it offered students a $1,000.00 stipend to join. I ended up joining and I love it! I have a mentor that I meet with. I’m usually a shy person, who doesn’t like to start conversations, but this program has helped me to open up to others. Be Bold is a really great program, even without the stipend. Being able to talk to female mentors who are working in the computer science field and also have (Be Bold Program Founder) Maria Vittone and (Be Bold Program Leader) Dr. Eda Watts root for us, just makes a whole big difference when going through these programs that are not traditionally careers for women.

How often do you meet with your mentors?

We meet once a month and we're encouraged to meet more independently too. I was able to gain a secondary mentor because I felt like another person would be helpful for me to get more information about the computer science field.

What do you talk about with your mentors when you get together?

My first mentor worked in the computer science field, but on the promotion side and created programs for other people. She worked on the outside of programming, which I thought was interesting, because I never thought there was more beyond programming. She’s an amazing person. She goes to different events to promote girls and coding. She’s very perky and has so much energy and positivity. My secondary mentor helps me with resumes because I’m trying to get an internship. She is very straight to the point, and she helped me give myself credit on my resume for the work that I’ve done. She said, “You've done 15 years at your company, but you didn't explain what you did. You shorted yourself, you've done a lot, but it just doesn't show up on this resume.” It was good advice to hear. She works with people on their resumes professionally, so she helped me clean it up.

What would you like to do after you graduate next fall?

I’d like to land a job before I transfer to get my bachelor’s degree. I would like to get into the industry and start figuring out where I want to go first. I think I’d like to build stuff and work on lots of projects. I get excited when I’m asked to build something completely new. Having to debug everything and have my co-workers give feedback so we can improve it. That is exciting because, a lot of this field is just maintaining what is already created. But I would like to create new stuff and say, ‘Hey, is this what you want? Here you go!’ The one thing I try to explain to people when I began programming, is that it's not an instant thing. A program I created took months and months and months. It's not an easy thing and sometimes you do need experts, sometimes you have to Google things. In the future I might also like to be a project manager, or be the one who keeps track of all the projects coming in.

What has been your favorite aspect of the Be Bold program?

I really like the speakers they’ve brought into the events; they’ve helped me a lot. At one event, there was a speaker who was an Artificial Intelligence Specialist. She was teaching us how to create our own brand and she said, point blank, “My biggest regret was that in the beginning, I tried to be like everybody else. To look professional, wear gray and black suits and not really show people who I am. But the next day, I thought, ‘Screw it,’ I’m going to have pink everywhere and hang my chandeliers. This is me and if you don’t like it and you don’t take me professionally, you can leave.” I asked her, ‘As a female programmer, what is the hardest thing that you’ve had to deal with?’ She said, “Deciding when to pick your battles. One time, I had a solution to a problem, I told the men in charge, and they didn’t hear me. Then my male co-worker said the same exact thing and they told him it was a great idea.” She didn’t get mad, she didn’t yell, or throw a hissy fit. She just had the mindset that this wasn’t a battle she was willing to die over. In her eyes, this was just another step in her career to move up. This story helped me to remember that there are still stereotypes out there, but I can handle them. All in all, Be Bold is a great program and for somebody who has failed so many times, this program has really helped to keep me going when I've felt like I just couldn't do it. Going online and talking to all these other girls who are going into fields like mine and talking to others who are struggling really helps. Even just having Maria and Eda rooting for us, makes a big difference. Having the mentors there to talk to is helpful too because, it's kind of scary going into a male dominated field. Female programmers and construction workers are few and far between. For Maria to find them is really amazing. The fact that I haven't failed or stopped, and this program has made me want to keep going, that means a lot. I hope this story can inspire others who have given up to come back to school. Failing is not permanent, failing is tripping on the floor and getting back up again.

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