A student leader assists a coding student at the T2 Academy. (Photos Courtesy City of Refuge)

On May 25, students from the first cybersecurity cohort at the City of Refuge’s Tech Transformation Academy (T2 Academy) will graduate and enter Atlanta’s information technology workforce.

“From our amazing job recruiter to our teachers, life coaches, and case managers, this program has been the best thing that has ever happened to me,” said student Joel Kigwila, who entered the program with no IT experience. “After graduating, I will start my Delta career as an IT Associate Security Analyst.” 

Housed in a donated warehouse on the Westside, City of Refuge has served more than 25,000 people over 25 years with holistic programming focused on health and wellness, housing, vocational training, and youth development. Its campus includes a Workforce Innovation Hub that prepares unemployed/underemployed participants for meaningful work in manufacturing, automotive technology, banking, culinary, and IT. 

City of Refuge launched its T2 Academy, a coding and cyber security job training and placement program, in February 2021 thanks to a $5.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We want to attract more people to apply and are looking for more business partners because we are running this program through 2025,” said Jeannie Ross, Manager of the Workforce Innovation Hub and T2 Academy lead. 

In partnership with Atlanta-based DigitalCrafts and the Carolina Cyber Center of Montreat College, T2 Academy seeks to recruit and train 280 unemployed/underemployed individuals in metro Atlanta with a focus on people of color, women, individuals with disabilities, veterans, military spouses, transitioning service members, ex-offenders, and others with employment barriers. 

“The grant is phenomenal. It covers tuition, equipment, fees for certificates, lunch, and soft skills training like resumes, cover letters, business emails,” said Recruiter John McQueen. “We are focused on giving the student every opportunity to be successful – they just have to put in the hard work.” 

The program offers a four-month coding bootcamp and a nine-month cyber security professional bootcamp that meets daily during the week. Last December, the first coding students graduated and shortly thereafter began junior software engineer positions, apprenticeships or internships with salaries ranging from $60,000 to $80,000 annually. 

T2 Academy’s graduating class in December 2021.

Applications are now being accepted for upcoming classes: a 6.5-month part-time coding class starting June 17, a cyber cohort in August, and a full-time coding cohort in February 2023.

“We’re looking for students 100% committed to finding a job in IT,” McQueen said. “There are 450,000 open jobs right now [nationwide] without enough people to fill those jobs.”           

The biggest challenge is mindset, according to Troy Wilson, coding instructor and former MailChimp software engineer.

“It was a bit intimidating because I was used to working jobs that required a lot of physical labor and never thought I was qualified to be a coder,” shared coding graduate Morrese Green. “I spent seven years working jobs that paid $10 or $15 an hour. I knew I could do more.” He now works as an associate cloud system developer.

“My rules are positive self-talk; take things one step at a time; be comfortable with slow progress; don’t subscribe to the culture of comparison,” Wilson said.  

He tells his students that he was fifth-to-last in his high school class and didn’t finish college – to model what’s possible. Coding is just a new way to translate their thoughts for the computer.

“The advice I would give [future students] is ask for help!” Green emphasized. “The people and resources City of Refuge has are phenomenal and it is imperative that you take advantage of them.”

Those resources include a variety of on-campus support services. 

“We have CityKids, which is child care from 6 weeks old.  We have youth programs for after school. We have medical services with Mercy Care. We provide MARTA cards.” Ross said.

Cyber security student Joel Kigwila accepted a job offer from Delta Air Lines.

Corporate speakers, mentors, and volunteers also provide students with guidance, a professional network, and sometimes a position.

“What we are trying to do is build a corporate community of support,” said Life Skills Trainer and Placement coach, Ron Cofield, who recently retired from PwC. “We started inviting chief information officers, chief technology officers, chief information security officers, to come speak to our class, and usually after they’ve visited, they kind of join the team. I have high expectations for more companies to join us.” 

Cofield also facilitates one-on-one mentorships, pairing students mostly with IT professionals. 

“I listened and provided resources and experiential wisdom to help him achieve his goal,” mentor Austin Edmonson, a System Engineer at The Home Depot, shared about his mentee. “In addition, I had him focus on his LinkedIn wording, profile picture, and connections. The highlight was the phone call saying, ‘I got my first job offer, thank you so much.’”

These connections help the T2 Academy students after graduation, as well.

“Before this program, my LinkedIn consisted of three people. Now, my network consists of CEOs, CISOs, managers, investors, and many inspiring individuals. I can reach out anytime because most have become mentors and friends,” Kigwila shared. 

You can find T2 Academy graduates, working at companies such as Cox Enterprises, Delta Airlines, EY, Genuine Parts, Intercontinental Exchange, and more.    

So far, I am extremely happy and excited to be working. The entire process of school, interviewing, and then landing a role in the field is something I have still not gotten over. It will really give you the roadmap to success,” said coding graduate Jeremy Steward, who now works for Revel Systems. 

Learn more at cityofrefugeatl.org, Facebook and Instagram. Apply online or attend the T2 Academy open house at City of Refuge every Monday at 1 p.m. Interested employers or mentors can contact Ron Cofield at rcofield@cityofrefugeatl.org

Clare S. Richie

Clare S. Richie is a freelance writer and public policy specialist based in Atlanta.