This is a post in our anniversary series 500 in 5. Check out our other posts in this series.
NSS Doesn’t Change Lives - Our Students Change Their Lives
I still remember like it was yesterday. Four years plus ago one of our recent grads came up to me at a local tech event and said: “Thank you for NSS - you’ve changed my life”. My first reaction was shock that someone had credited me and the school I had founded with something as profound as changing their life. The second reaction was some combination of happiness for them - that they had found something in terms of career and satisfaction from the investment they had made in learning - and some mix of pride and ego that I and my little experiment in vocational education had changed someone’s life. And quickly that second part of the reaction made me uncomfortable.
It wasn’t the happiness for them that felt uncomfortable - it was the pride/ego part. I didn’t really think much more about it at that time but over the next months, as more graduates would seek me out to thank me for NSS and often say those words about changing their life, I began to think more about what it was that seemed wrong and felt uncomfortable in my reaction to their deeply felt message.
What I came to believe, and what I still believe, is that my discomfort came from the fact that I didn’t believe that NSS (or even more, that I) had played any role in changing the lives of those graduates. I didn’t fundamentally believe that NSS was in the business of changing lives. In fact, I believed it was dangerous for us to see ourselves as having agency in changing people’s’ lives.
To me it was clear that our students are the agents of change in their lives. Whether the result of attending NSS is finding a new career, or igniting a passion for software development, or even changing their life, the agent of change in those discoveries is the student, not NSS. It’s the student who makes the decision, often with the support of loved ones like their spouse, children, partner, parents, etc. It’s the student and those around them who sacrifice income and time and energy to focus on learning to be a software developer. The students are the ones who ultimately change their own lives.
None of that is to diminish the role that NSS plays in those changes. In particular, it is not to diminish the importance that our instructors play in facilitating the changes that students make. It’s not to suggest that we shouldn’t and don’t feel immense pride in our students and what they accomplish because we do feel that and more. It enriches us; it energizes us in ways that I think most of us haven’t found in most other professional endeavors. I see that in the interactions between our instructors and our students and graduates every day at NSS.
What our instructors do is hard work. But the harder work belongs to our students. We’re not in the center of the picture. It’s not all about us. It’s about the students. They have agency over their lives. We are coaches and mentors and teachers and facilitators and advocates and butt-kickers and shoulders-to-cry-on and, in the long run, often colleagues and friends.
So, if NSS doesn’t change lives, what do we do? What is our purpose in all of this?
I have come to believe that we are in the opportunity creation business. The career opportunities that exist for someone that has learned to develop software are almost unlimited. We are in the business of creating opportunities for our students to seize those career options, or at least launch themselves down the road that leads to those career options. We don’t know what our students will do with the opportunities we provide - that’s up to them. Some students sort of walk around the myriad of opportunities and poke at them and try to decide which ones won’t poke them back. Some students unfortunately decide that these are not the opportunities that they are looking for. And many grab hold of the opportunities and run with them as fast as they can.
I’m okay with running “Opportunities R Us”. For me and for NSS it’s enough that we set the table with opportunities. We don’t have to be in the center of the frame - that’s the place in this picture where our students should be. And so today when one of those happy graduates comes up to me and thanks me for changing their life, I know what my answer is. My answer is, “NSS didn’t change your life, you changed your life, and we are all proud of you.”