From Student to Teacher: How Andres Gonzalez Channeled His Boot Camp Skills to Help Prison Inmates

Andres Gonzalez

On February 11, Andres Gonzalez entered a classroom just as he had every day for the past 18 years. The difference? For the first time, he was a professor, not a student—and the class was in a prison.

Andres just started an exciting—and inspiring—new position teaching computer technology to inmates at the Arizona Department of Corrections. And his journey from student to teacher started at the University of Arizona Coding Boot Camp.

A new student opportunity

Since he was three, Andres has been a student. After earning his BS in environmental science, he went on to get a Master of Sustainability Solutions from Arizona State University. But his master’s was more managerial and big picture, and Andres felt he needed experience with Python and code to progress in his career.

So instead of taking a break from school like he’d planned, Andres found himself enrolling in the University of Arizona Coding Boot Camp. The boot camp was the perfect fit: it was in-person, six months, and had stellar career services.

Having just completed his master’s program, Andres was comfortable with the classroom setting. But absorbing and learning the new concepts took a lot of attention and effort.

“I called the boot camp temporary intensity,” Andres said. “It’s difficult and challenging, but it’s temporary. I told myself that if I start this now, I have a job by January, which was the goal.”

Discovering his next step

Flash forward a few months and Andres started to get the hang of coding. So much so that when a career opportunity arose, he jumped at it.

The position (which had been open for four months) was for a professor of computer technology at Central Arizona College. The candidate would spend 30 hours per week teaching inmates at the Arizona Department of Corrections. Andres was sold.

“I call it a perfect storm—in a good way,” Andres said. “All of 2018 I was in my master’s so I wouldn’t have been able to apply. The fact that the position came around while I was learning these skills, it was perfect.”

It’s not a position for the faint of heart, but Andres’s background positioned him to be the ideal candidate. “Within the first 12 months of any prisoner leaving, 50% go back. It’s a huge societal problem where we don’t give inmates the tools to stay out,” he said. “That’s a sustainability issue.”

Andres found his dream job, now all he had to do was land it.

Proving his value—and earning the gig

The first thing Andres needed was credibility. “Because the position is about teaching prison inmates to become IT technicians, I needed a computing background,” he said. “Because of the boot camp, I’m able to say I’m qualified. That, combined with my master’s, gave me the confidence that I should apply.”

Next came the interview process. The first went smoothly, but the second gave Andres pause—so he looked to the boot camp’s career services team. “The second interview was with the dean of Central Arizona College. I just spent years as a student, so having to talk to a dean made me totally freak out,” he said.

Heather Hans, his career services advocate, stepped up. She was able to find a former dean at Devry University who was willing to speak to Andres for a mock interview the very next day. “It was such a niche interview, I’m so lucky Heather was able to set that up for me,” Andres said. “And being in the boot camp, I learned the skill sets that set me apart for the job.”

And he clearly nailed the interview. Shortly after, Andres was hired.

From student to teacher

Now, Andres is teaching his own boot camp. Over a 10-week span, he’s tasked with teaching 15 highly motivated inmates who are within one year of release.

“The biggest challenge with teaching IT in prison is that I can’t really use a computer,” he said. “Instead, it’s really about focusing on the soft skills like flexibility, time management, professionalism, accountability—all the skills the University of Arizona Coding Boot Camp taught me. These are even more important than the hard skills.”

Right now, he’s in charge of teaching one group of inmates how to get their A+ Certification. But thanks to his background, he’ll soon be creating his own curriculum.

“It’s been a challenge, but the boot camp provided me with the confidence to do this job and continue to learn. It prepared me for learning something brand new and gave me the flexibility to learn along the way,” Andres said.

The biggest takeaway is that there’s not just one road to follow. “Becoming a software developer is not the only pathway from the coding boot camp,” Andres said. “I never dreamed I would become a professor but here I am. I might not be writing JavaScript every day, but I’m still using my boot camp skills.”

Looking to the future, Andres is excited. “The boot camp was the end of an era: my formal education,” he said. “But it’s the start of the rest of my life.” And because of Andres, many inmates will get a new start as well.

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