Loyalty to his first job kept a 25-year-old stuck. A pandemic ‘epiphany’ set him free. | #education | #technology | #training

Christopher Rodriguez’s life changed for the better when, at age 14, his mother sent him to the local community center. Instead of being alone indoors he spent the summer going on field trips, swimming at local pools and spending time with other kids.

“Being with other kids gave me a sense of purpose that I didn’t have,” said Rodriguez.

He liked it so much that a year later he began volunteering at the Mystic Learning Center, which serves children and families year-round in the Somerville public housing development where Rodriguez grew up. He was hired for a staff position when he was in high school and nine years later, at age 25, was still working there.

“I viewed the Mystic Learning Center as a second home and a place to, like, give back to my community as they had helped me when I was younger. I saw it as helping them,” said Rodriguez.

Watch Christopher Rodriguez’s story:

Over the years, he’d occasionally considered exploring other jobs, but his sense of loyalty pulled him back. He said he saw how the center needed his help. And Rodriguez enjoyed being with the kids and watching them grow up in his neighborhood.

But when the pandemic hit, the center was shut down for several months. It was “a pause on life,” Rodriguez said, and he used the time to return to something that has long fascinated him: technology.

As a kid he’d taught himself how to fix broken video games because his family didn’t have enough money for repairs. During the shutdown, he spent time reading articles about tech and swapping out parts on his computer. And he came to a realization: He wanted a different career.

“Every time I master that skill, I feel like a kid again, where, like, I’m really proud of myself that I did it.”

Christopher Rodriguez

“I’m at my happiest when I’m surrounded by technology and kind of learning more about it or helping somebody else understand it,” Rodriguez said, “During the pandemic … it made me have, like, an epiphany that tech is really what I wanted to do.”

Younger workers, in particular, are reassessing their careers during the pandemic. A poll conducted in July by the Washington Post and Schar School at George Mason University found nearly 1 in 3 workers under 40 have thought about changing jobs since the start of the pandemic.

When COVID restrictions eased in July 2020, Rodriguez returned to work, but just a few months later he started feeling burnt out. He was working longer hours to help kids with virtual school and struggling to create a sense of normalcy when “everything was so abnormal.” The tightly knit community of children and adults couldn’t interact in the way it always had.

“Before the pandemic, the kids would come in from different schools and the first thing they would do [was] put down their snack and hug each other. But now, after the pandemic had hit, they really couldn’t do that,” Rodriguez said.

But he was struck by how quickly the children adapted to wearing masks and remote learning. And observing their “flexibility,” he said, gave him the impetus he needed to change his own life.

“You get to a certain age and you feel like there’s no change. And then, like, kids just constantly are able to switch,” said Rodriguez. “It is sort of like a muscle and that like you kind of have to work it out. And kids are constantly working it out.”

Rodriguez decided to take a crucial step toward a new career. He turned to the state’s LEAP program, which links public housing residents with job and education opportunities, since he said that it helped others in his housing community. A LEAP employee recommended a short term IT development program at the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit Just A Start. It struck him as a perfect fit and he began courses in January while he continued work at the center.

Christopher Rodriguez, age 25, at his home in Somerville, Mass., on Sept. 22, 2021.

Meredith Nierman / GBH News

Learning something new every day energized him, he said, and soon he was happily taking apart and rebuilding a computer. It wasn’t easy walking away from the kids he loved helping — and the place that was such a big part of his life — but in May he quit his learning center job to focus fully on the training program.

Rodriguez’s quit came with a risk. He finished the program in September and is still hunting for entry-level work, likely on a help desk. It’s the first time in his adult life he hasn’t had a job, and while he still lives at home with his mother and siblings, he worries about not having any income.

But Rodriguez doesn’t question his decision to quit his job. And he credits his former students for teaching him that lesson about staying flexible.

“They helped me get that moment of, like, I’m not stuck where I am. Like, I can change,” said Rodriguez, “I’m, like, the most happy I’ve been in a while. … The future doesn’t seem as monotonous.”

He’s already dreaming of returning to school to become a software engineer.

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