IT’s Live: Building a Convenient, Classroom-to-Career Network at Sierra College

NFNRC News Center – October 2019


Jesse Rivera was in the middle of his first job interview when he realized the true power of his Sierra College education.

“The surge of information that came from my professors and my time at Sierra College just flooded out of my mouth,” he says about that fateful meeting with the hiring manager from a Northern California financial tech company.

Spoiler alert: He got the job. And now, Rivera is a cybersecurity superstar, handling everything from help desk requests to hard drive replacements and network troubleshooting.

“You are a well-developed person by the time you’re done with the program at Sierra,” says Rivera, who earned his associate degree in Networking and Security, plus three additional certificates in Information Assurance and Cybersecurity.

Rivera wasn’t born a network whisperer. In fact, it wasn’t until his family was victimized by cybercrime that the career path even occurred to him. After having their identity stolen, Rivera’s parents lost a large sum of money, just as they were trying to pay off their mortgage, and the crisis drove him to understand how online security worked. The professors at Sierra encouraged Rivera until his passion became his profession.

“My experience at Sierra enriched me in ways I don’t feel I would have had if I’d gone straight into a UC or CSU,” says Rivera. “It felt like home.”

Sierra College is rising up to help students like Rivera land crucial careers in the rapidly expanding Information Technology (IT) industry. Just recently, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officially recognized Sierra College’s Cybersecurity Program as a National Center of Academic Excellence.

Sierra is one of only five community colleges in California to bear this prestigious distinction. According to the NSA’s award letter, the honor is a testament to the College’s “ability to meet the increasing demands of the program criteria [that] will serve the nation well in contributing to the protection of the National Information Infrastructure.”

The designation comes just as the IT department rolls out a pilot program to livestream classes across its three main campuses. Thanks to the new program, IT is more widely available to students who otherwise might not have had these opportunities.

Sierra College has a unique challenge: its three campuses are spread out over a 3,200-square-mile district. From the alpine Tahoe-Truckee region, to the Nevada County Campus nestled in the foothills, to Rocklin down in the flatlands of Sacramento, Sierra’s diverse population is separated by many miles and sometimes impassable snow. Traditionally, students at the more remote campuses have had to drive long distances to get to Rocklin.

But no more. Starting with IT and business classes, Sierra College is livestreaming courses from Rocklin to the Tahoe-Truckee and Nevada County (NCC) campuses. They are reaching more students than ever, and preparing them for in-demand careers.

The Livestreaming technology came as part of the IT department’s redesign and curriculum reboot, made possible by Strong Workforce funding. As the College upgraded its outstanding cybersecurity program and created a new data analytics program, livestreaming emerged as a way to deliver critical content to multiple locations.

“Our faculty want to share their knowledge, help grow the talent pool, and reach out to our students,” says Annette Nylander, professor at Sierra College for over 20 years and the driving force behind the department’s redesign. “They are going to be able to reach a larger audience through the livestream project.”

The first IT class is already streaming live, powered by interactive Cisco Spark Boards that are installed at NCC and Tahoe-Truckee. Similar to a large TV, the Spark Boards are touch screens with a built-in mic and camera. Meanwhile, the distribution room at Rocklin is outfitted with special cameras and microphones so the instructor can connect with the other campuses and broadcast a three-way interactive class.

“The Spark Board is really cool because they can draw on it like a whiteboard,” says Malena Prinzing, instructor of the first livestreaming class.

Students from the remote campuses can even annotate the professor’s slides to share with everyone: “It’s just like a phone. You push the screen, and buttons appear.”

Prinzing, who teaches classes both on-campus and online, loves the new option of livestreaming, which affords more face-to-face interaction than an online course. Students can see everyone at the different campuses and collaborate. Meanwhile, for NCC students, livestreaming has made a considerable impact.

“I’m able to engage with the instructor just as if I were physically in the same classroom,” says Eric Wende, who runs an e-commerce business, selling and shipping worldwide. If the class were offered only at Rocklin, Wende says he could not have afforded the commute time. “I think it’s cool to be one of the guinea pigs for it.”

Fellow NCC student Ethan Mayotte agrees. “Being able to take this class at NCC has honestly made my semester,” says Mayotte, who would have been unable to commute to Rocklin. He’s earning his IT certification and wants to start a career as soon as possible. With livestreaming, his goal is now a whole lot closer.

Livestreaming is having a positive affect local businesses, as well. The Nevada County tech company Autometrix, Inc. is just one local business that hires interns and employees from Sierra College, while depending on the college to advance the skills of current employees.

“When the class is available right here in town, it’s much more likely that I’m going to encourage existing employees to take a look at continuing education opportunities,” says Jonathan Palmer, owner and CEO of Autometrix.

Palmer says that one of his best interns — an outstanding student who has since become an employee — came from Sierra College. And with locals now being able to take more IT classes, Palmer is thrilled that Sierra is enhancing the local tech talent pool.

”Even if we’re looking for somebody who needs a four-year degree, if they’re getting started at Sierra, that gives me several years to build the relationship with them,” says Palmer, who has historically struggled to find top talent nearby. “I’m glad Sierra College is there.”

The pilot class involves the NCC and Rocklin campuses this semester. In the spring, they will be joined by Tahoe-Truckee, the smallest and most remote campus with about 500 students.
“Tahoe-Truckee is just shy of 100 miles to Rocklin Campus,” says Instructional Assistant Maria Von Der Ahe. “And our gas is very expensive — we run about a dollar more than any of the surrounding communities.”

For many, this extra expense is untenable. And while Tahoe-Truckee strives to make available as many services and programs as possible, it cannot house the wide variety of offerings that Rocklin boasts.

“Part of the beauty of this livestreaming technology is that we can get to our campus even if we couldn’t get over the mountain,” says Von Der Ahe. “We [can even] hold classes when it is inclement weather.”

With Truckee ranking as the fifth-snowiest city in the nation, livestreaming is going to be a game-changer.

“While the new livestreaming brings obvious value to our local students, high-quality remote classes like this also benefit local businesses of all sizes,” says Rachel Arst McCullough, co-founder of tech company Tahoe Silicon Mountain and Sierra College alum. “Sierra College has always been a huge asset to our community.”

The college plans to expand its livestreaming offerings to include data analyst, cybersecurity, and other new, high-demand classes, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and Python. The Python class filled completely this semester, even though it is offered only on Friday night — not typically the optimal choice for a college student. It goes to show that not only is cutting-edge tech education on the menu at Sierra College, but students are hungry for it.

The technology also has the potential to open doors for the incarcerated. Currently, plans are in the works to deliver livestream classes into prisons.

“If we just put a Spark Board in there, they could have that instruction while they are in confinement,” says Nylander, who is helping develop the idea. “When they get out, they could be employable.”

In response to surging demand for IT professionals in the region, Sierra College students will have new opportunities to connect with potential employers. Johnathan Taylor, former Sierra College instructor and Director of the Privacy and Information Security Department at Sutter Health, is strengthening Sierra’s partnership with his company and creating student internships.
When Taylor started at Sutter Health 21 years ago, his department consisted of seven people. Now, there are well over 100, demonstrating the exponential growth – and critical need — in the health technology sector.

Taylor is working to introduce interns in the spring, and his team is excited to begin training students in risk assessment. He also works closely with other departments that could potentially hire interns in research and policy, government regulation, vulnerability assessments, and incident response.

So, how is Taylor so sure that the internship program is going to be a success? Well, for one thing, two of his former Sierra College students already work with him at Sutter Health. One former student, Angelo Lujan, is on the incident response team, which monitors the network for threats (see sidebar for more), while another Sierra grad started as a risk analyst before going on to become an information security officer, and most recently, director of cybersecurity metrics.

According to Taylor, that rapid advancement demonstrates the power of an IT degree from Sierra College, and makes him proud as a member of the Sierra family.

“He was my student a few years ago, and now he’s my peer as a director,” beams Taylor.