This feature first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
I am a huge fan of American history. I read books, I watch videos, and I love visiting historical sites. For example, I've been to Gettysburg National Military Park a dozen times, typically staying until a tired ranger tells me, Sir, the park is closed, it's time to go.� One city steeped in American history that everyone should visit at least once is the Big Apple — New York City.
The city itself is tremendous, but my favorite place there is a bit more reserved: Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor. While not as widely recognized as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island is nonetheless an equally hallowed touchstone of the American epic. Between 1892 and 1924, as a port of entry, Ellis Island welcomed 12 million European immigrants.
While originating from different lands, these newcomers would go on to play an integral part in our history. In their pursuit of the American Dream, they started businesses, paid taxes, got involved civically, and even fought in wars to defend their new homeland. Though it hasn't processed immigrants for more than 96 years, Ellis Island still looms large in our national narrative — an astounding 40 percent of our present population is descended from those original 12 million newcomers.
New arrivals to America have typically encountered at least a degree of initial resistance to their presence. As the melting pot works its magic, however, all parties begin to appreciate one another's contributions, work side-by-side, and gradually accept each other as that uniquely odd and wonderful creature, the American Citizen.
Like the vast majority of native-born Americans, most immigrants to funnel into the country through Ellis Island lived quiet and productive lives. There were and still are, however, some singular individuals who, through their vision and energy, have become household names. Liz Claiborne from Belgium founded a cosmetics giant that became the first Fortune 500 Company headed up by a woman.
Germany gave us Levi Strauss, whose name almost all of us today wear on our jeans. Strauss' countryman, Albert Einstein, became an American citizen to escape the rise of Germany's Third Reich and is revered today as one of history's greatest scientists. The truth is that one never knows what an immigrant can accomplish once they are here. All of which brings me to 15-year-old Kelvin Tran.
From China to Texas
Kelvin's parents came to the United States when he was just a few months old. They came for the reasons that most people do, searching for better opportunities for life and work. The family eventually settled in Houston, Texas, where young Kelvin has been making the most of his education ever since — particularly when it comes to information technology (IT).
For time out of mind, older people have complained that, Youth is wasted on the young. That is not the case with Kelvin. He currently holds the A+, Network+, and Security+ certifications from CompTIA, along with an MCSA: Windows Server 2016 from Microsoft and Cisco's CCNA: Routing and Switching.
That would be plenty impressive for a guy just starting the 10th grade, but Kelvin has even loftier ambitions. His goal is to earn expert-level Cisco and Microsoft credentials like CCIE: Enterprise Infrastructure, MCSE: Core Infrastructure, and CCNP: Collaboration. That's as far as my plan extends, said Kelvin, although there will be more in the future, likely other Cisco tracks.
In addition to being very intelligent, Kelvin is surprisingly poised, focused and pleasant. He is also refreshingly humble. I don't like to brag, he said, I just like earning certifications.
Kelvin is a student at Elsik High School in Houston. He enjoys all of his classes, especially English because it gives him the opportunity to work on his writing skills. An avid writer, he enjoys a good story — as long as it's not told in a movie. Kelvin doesn't think movies are worth his time: A movie is a three-hour commitment spent watching someone else's fictional life. No thanks.
Learning IT his own way
Elsik is a local school that funnels students looking for specialized education to the Alief Center for Advanced Careers. As well as Kelvin does in his regular classes, it is at Alief that his passion for IT truly blossoms. The center is only in its second year, yet is already doing a great job preparing students for careers in IT.
The tech classes are small — 20 or fewer students — and designed to provide plenty of opportunity for students to earn certifications. According to instructor Ana Shah, some IT students are so interested and motivated by what they are learning about technology that they earn CompTIA's A+, Network+, and Security+ certifications while still in school.
Ordinarily, students who complete numerous certifications rigorously follow set study strategies and patterns. That's not Kelvin's style. For him, studying means being flexible. If I try to study with a strategy, it makes me feel confined and systematic — not the most effective way for me to learn.
Kelvin prefers instead to let his thoughts roam free while studying. Shooting from the hip, he feels, is the most effective way to internalize new concepts. I mostly just "run and gun" it with books and other practice materials including videos, notes and lots of practice questions. Whatever feels right at the time.
Prepping for a cert exam without a study strategy is surefire means of attracting criticism from doubters, who often chide Kelvin and tell him that he won't be able to pass. Along with his other positive attributes, however, Kelvin does not lack for confidence.
My study habits work for me,� he said. In the future, they may not work for higher-tier certifications, but then I'll adapt as the content gets harder and requires it.
Machines that light up and stringed instruments
Kelvin has good reason to be confident in his ability to work with computers. He's been working with them in one way or another since age 3, when his parents brought home a Dell 780 that ran Windows XP. Enthralled with the noises and bright lights it made booting up, Kelvin would often climb on top of the table and turn it on.
When a three-year-old sees a machine light up, it kind of makes their day, he said. That is how I got going in computers. His interest in all things tech has kept right on growing ever since and the ensuing 12 years have been an IT-bonanza for Kelvin. He has a bevy of awards that testify to his abilities.
In February of this year, Kelvin successfully completed a series of challenging IT tasks to win first place in a SkillsUSA regional competition. In April, he took first place at the state level SkillsUSA competition, and followed up at the national level by garnering an impressive 7th place finish.
In addition to mastering certifications, Kelvin is also a member of Elsik High School's chamber orchestra, where he plays the violin. He has been playing the violin since age 10, though violin wasn't his first choice: Kelvin would have preferred to learn the cello. I inherited (violin playing) from my older sister and at the time I was a measly four-foot something. The cello would have been 110 percent my size, he laughingly said.
Outside of orchestra, Kelvin has not done much in the way of extracurricular activities, mostly because of time constraints. I haven't been able to find the extra time, he said, adding that, so far, there hasn't been a reason to look. As of yet, I just haven't found an extracurricular club that interests me enough to seriously invest my time in.
For the past two years, most of Kelvin's free time has been spent working on IT certifications. Although he has always been good with computers, he became intrigued with the premise of certification after finishing 7th grade. I really liked the idea that passing an exam would give me a credential that was marketable to an employer. It was a big deal for me.
Building job-ready IT skills
During the summer months before his 8th-grade year, Kelvin had the opportunity to assist one of the school's tech support specialists in maintaining desktop systems, doing client support, and handling less critical IT infrastructure. One of the regular tech support employees had moved, he explained, and the remaining tech specialist asked me to help out.
Another endearing aspect of Kelvin's personality is his gratitude for all who have helped him along the way, especially Kathy Hansen, who asked him for help that summer. She started me down the path of certifications and I owe her eternal gratitude, he said. Kelvin's IT knowledge and skills has enabled him to help the school and the district with tech projects every summer since.
Still too young for regular employment, Kelvin keeps his IT skills sharp by doing occasional freelance work. I don't have a consistent part-time job yet. I mostly just jump from opportunity to opportunity to help anyone who asks.
He is also appreciates his core teachers for their understanding and support during times he is prepping for certification exams. They are very nice teachers. They often allow me to concentrate on my certification studies when preparing for an exam, and let me catch-up on my regular school work once it's over.
Alief's Shah, who teaches technology classes, works closely with Kelvin and understands his desire to succeed — she, too, was born in another country (India) and came to the United States as a small child. She describes Kelvin as an independent learner who is definitely driving his own education.
A major challenge for Shah as she helps lead Kelvin in his IT development is that he is so advanced. I don't have any of the certs that he is studying, she said. So I'm trying to find someone who understands networking at the level he wants to achieve.
Shah and other department members have put together an advisory committee with the goal of finding a proper mentor for Kelvin, and hopefully a work-study program for his senior year.
Like great IT instructors everywhere, Shah knows that doing IT work requires more than just being good at IT. Her teaching includes a healthy dose of soft skills practice as a way to help students learn to communicate and perform better in the workplace. I tell them that IT skills will get them a job interview, but soft skills are what will get them past the first interview.
Each week Shah holds Financial Friday, where students learn the life skills of setting and following a budget, using credit cards wisely, and being careful with debt. She believes that every student needs to know how to manage their money.
IT takes a village
The support Kelvin has been given on his path to becoming an IT professional doesn't all come from inside the classroom. Not yet old enough for a driver's license, he relies on his parents to chauffer him to study sessions and exams — and to pay exam fees.
I can't thank my parents enough, Kelvin said. They drove me wherever I needed to go and paid for all my exams. Literally, they have spent thousands of dollars buying me preparation materials and paying for certification exams.
A network of close friends also pitches is with much-needed moral support in helping Kelvin meet his certification goals. My friends are great, he said. When life gets in the way and finding the time and energy to study is difficult, they help me stay on track.
Kelvin isn't earning certifications just for the sake of having them. He understands the advantages of the credentials. They enable you to put your money where your mouth is and show an employer that you actually know something, rather than just relying on you saying so.
While Kelvin certainly has the skills to succeed in any number of IT domains, his interests lean heavily toward designing and maintaining networks. Working with networks is fun. I like learning network protocols, seeing how various problems can arise, and especially (learning) how to solve them, he said. Professionally, I would like to eventually earn a CCIE in enterprise infrastructure.
Encouragement for others
As hard as he works, Kelvin does occasionally find time to relax and unwind. His two favorite non-IT activities are playing PC games and watching YouTube videos. I don't look for any particular type of videos, just open the app and watch whatever catches my eye. And, like most teenagers, he often burns the candle at both ends:
I enjoy sleeping, too, because it's something that I usually don't get enough of, he said with a big laugh.
Kelvin's educational and career prospects are bright. While no one can say just what he will accomplish in the future, it's a sure bet that certifications will be the foundation on which he builds. Having earned so many certs at such a young age is an impressive feat, but it hasn't given Kelvin an inflated sense of importance. He is aware of other youth and willingly acknowledges their accomplishments.
I'm certainly one of the youngest students earning certifications, but I know there are people younger than me doing the same. To them I say congratulations.
Kelvin and his family have come a long way since moving to the United States from China. He has taken advantage of the opportunities his schools and instructors have provided. All told, his experiences and the people around him have helped him develop a mature perspective on the field of IT and the role of certifications.
When asked what advice he can give to other students interested in certification, his words are welcoming and encouraging: Every day is the perfect time to start. Whether you are 10 years old or 40 years old, you are never too early or too late to the game. IT is continuously changing and, as long as you're willing to adapt to that change, we'll gladly welcome you into the industry with open arms and a willingness to help.
How very American of him.