Degrees of Connection

"Jacques" Ibula Katakanga ’14 is a medical researcher at Children's Hospital Oakland.

Saint Mary’s BALOS program teams up with nonprofit to help people find jobs

“I knew I was good at leadership,” said Ibula Katakanga ’14, who works at Children’s Hospital Oakland as a medical researcher. But for 15 years, Katakanga, a Congolese native who first matriculated at Saint Mary’s in 1997, was unable to complete a college degree. Money issues, lack of direction, and a budding career as a singer-songwriter luck kept him from his academic goal; at one point, he slept on a mattress salvaged from a dumpster and sold newspapers on the street to make ends meet. He dreamed of starting a nonprofit to benefit his war-torn homeland, but “I didn’t have the qualifications.”

Then, in 2012, Katakanga took the bold step of enrolling in SMC’s innovative B.A. in Leadership and Organizational Studies (BALOS) degree completion program for working adults. There, he found both the support and challenges necessary to reinforce his sense of his potential and “reveal the leader in me that I had struggled to embrace.” Today, Katakanga is pursuing his master’s degree in management at SMC and has also obtained nonprofit status for Congo Bolingo, the African self-help organization he once only dreamed of. “Nothing extraordinary is ever achieved alone,” he said of his highly successful experience in the BALOS program. “[The faculty] is an amazing group of people who are giving something that is more than an education.”

BALOS, a two-year program launched in 2009, helps working adults like Katakanga finish degrees that have sometimes been postponed for decades. Work experience counts toward the 64-unit prerequisite, and a hybrid format allows students to complete much of the coursework online, with actual class meetings scheduled just once a month, on Saturdays.

Despite such accommodations, however, “students may come in worried about whether they can do it or not—‘Do I still know how to study? Am I too old?’” said Leadership Professor Barbara McLaughlin, who well understands such concerns. “That’s how I got my education,” she said, “as a working adult. I was 46 years old when I got my B.A.”

But, says McLaughlin, a former AT&T director who went on to obtain an M.B.A., and then a doctoral degree (Ed.D. ’09), “You don’t get too old for this stuff. You can always learn, and you get smarter!”

With a program completion rate of 85 percent, BALOS offers students the benefit of a small, intensely interactive educational community. Groups of just 15 to 18 students—“cohorts,” as BALOS faculty call them—progress together through each of 12 required courses in a leadership program that stresses collaboration and inclusiveness.

“It’s a very diverse set of students,” McLaughlin noted. “Not just ethnically—we have people from for-profits and from nonprofits, people who are unemployed, people with learning challenges, people who want to keep a promise they made to their mom 30 years ago. It’s quite a cross-section.”

“Everybody in my cohort had years and years of experience to back up whatever their ideas, opinions or positions are,” said John Salvatierra ’14, an information systems and project manager who enrolled in BALOS after losing his longtime job during the economic downturn in 2011. “So it was a very strong cohort. But it wasn’t always everybody on the same page. There was a lot of discussion. And you learn from that.”

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Students like Katakanga and Salvatierra often speak of their experiences in the BALOS program as “transformative.” Acquiring leadership skills expands options for work and study; being exposed to new ways of thinking broadens worldviews. And then there’s the shot of real-world drama that students leave the program with, thanks to an intensive culminating course, Leadership Project and Fieldwork, currently taught by Barbara McLaughlin.

Information systems and project manager John Salvatierra ’14.Offered in collaboration with Catholic Charities of the East Bay, the course recasts BALOS cohorts as real-life consulting groups who address issues relevant to the nonprofit’s impoverished, largely immigrant clientele. In the past, the student groups have been asked, among other things, to identify gaps in the charity’s literacy programs, develop an alumni mentoring plan for clients enrolled in Project Access (a program for entry into early childhood education careers), and pinpoint the most crucial “soft skills” for job-seekers, like networking and interviewing.

With their similar Lasallian commitments to social justice and service to the poor, Catholic Charities of the East Bay and SMC have a long history of partnership through CILSA. “Leading people from poverty into being self-sufficient—that is part of our mission,” said Nain Lopez, a native of Mexico who heads the charity’s Project Access program and has assigned several related consulting projects to BALOS cohorts.

A typical Project Access success story is that of 37-year-old Karina Vroom of Pinole, who earned a B.A. in business administration in Bolivia and worked for the phone company there. But when she immigrated to the United States in 2004, inadequate English skills relegated her to the sales floor at the local Target. Then her daughter, now 3, was born, and the ever-shifting schedule of a retail employee became untenable.

“I tried to look for a babysitter but it was too expensive,” said Vroom. “I was living with my sister-in-law and I didn’t want to live like that forever.” But now that Vroom is pursuing her early childhood education certificate at Contra Costa College and is working on her A.A., her prospects appear brighter. She subs as a classroom support provider for special needs students at Collins Elementary School in Pinole, and eventually plans to pursue a master’s degree in special education.

Another successful Project Access client, Maria Ramirez Hernandez, came to the United States from Mexico in 1989. Now 35, and the mother of five children under the age of 15, Hernandez completed her certification in early childhood education at Contra Costa College last June. “It was great because I was able to get a better job after that,” said Hernandez, a former supervisor at Target. Today, Hernandez is employed by the YMCA East Bay in Richmond to work with toddlers, and is pursuing her teaching credential with an eye toward getting “better jobs in the field.”

But despite such success stories, said Lopez of Catholic Charities, “times have changed. Nowadays, we have a lot of single moms or families with two supporting parents. [Our clients] go to school, they complete their units, they’re still making $9 an hour. That doesn’t sustain a family.” Nor, she said, did many of the organization’s male clients want careers in early childhood education.

And so Lopez asked the 17 students in Katakanga’s and Salvatierra’s Saint Mary’s cohort to identify new pathways to living-wage jobs for underserved residents of West Contra Costa County. Not as an academic exercise, but for real.

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The realization that their recommendations to Catholic Charities could have an impact on the lives of struggling East Bay residents, McLaughlin said, struck the students “like a bolt of lightning,” and the energetic but sometimes argumentative group galvanized into a cohesive force. “It was a magical moment,” she said.

“Meeting some of the women in the [Project Access] program fueled my desire to do a really good job on the project,” said Angela Averiett, 39, a Hayward police officer who was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant shortly after receiving her BALOS degree last June. A mother at the age of 17, Averiett had to put her higher education on hold while working full-time and parenting two daughters. “It was too much,” she said. “Even though I had a husband and he was [also] working, it was a lot to juggle. [So] I could really understand the plight the people we were helping were going through.”

Angela Averiett ’14 is a Hayward police officer.Similarly, Salvatierra identified with the predicament of immigrants learning to navigate in a new culture. Born in the Philippines, Salvatierra came to California as a young man and remembered his initial feeling of being completely lost. “The first time I landed in L.A. and drove from LAX to Pomona, it was overwhelming,” he said. “You’re always the odd man out. You don’t know what the rules are. You don’t know how to get around.” But at least, he said, he had already learned English and had family members nearby. “I could only imagine how hard it would be for folks that need the English language training and not knowing what the rules are,” he said.

Fueled by compassion, the cohort rose to the complicated challenge before it, conducting, in just a few short weeks, an extensive study and analysis of local demographics, economics, educational and training resources, and projected future workplace needs for major employers like PG&E and Chevron, among others. “That was no small feat,” said McLaughlin. And surprising everyone, perhaps even themselves, the students ultimately identified not one, but two, financially viable, upwardly mobile careers that Catholic Charities of the East Bay clients could prepare for—professional administration, and labor/construction— by obtaining certification and/or long-term degrees.

Titling their proposal “Project Pathways,” the students outlined their plan in a well-documented 92-page report that they presented to the nonprofit’s board last June, and followed up with a page of group reflections which ended by quoting Saint Francis of Assisi’s aphorism: “For it is in giving that we receive.”

“It was in depth, it was personal,” marveled Lopez, who considered the students’ work superior to what might have been produced by paid professionals. “Their research was more thorough, they went and talked to the [Catholic Charities] students, they went into the community,” she said. According to Lopez, the organization is now taking steps, including writing grants, to implement many of the proposal’s recommendations, which include not only specific ways to help job-seekers build skills, but also strategies to forge connections with employers, unions, and professional associations, as well as to effectively market the program to those most likely to benefit from it.

“I had tears in my eyes,” said Debra Gunn ’95, then the community engagement manager at Catholic Charities (she now serves as the organization’s development director), speaking of the cohort’s heartfelt presentation to the board. A late bloomer who completed her management degree only after years of fitful, one-class-per-semester progress while working and raising a family, Gunn said she “felt so proud” of the students, “like they were my own. It had come full circle. I had been in their shoes.”

But McLaughlin, for one, saw the cohort’s well-deserved success as a promising beginning, not a final end. “You can always grow,” she said. “And that’s what I want them to come away with. Okay, you got your bachelor’s. You’re graduating from this program––but you’re not graduating from life.”

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