Today at Berkeley Lab

DACA Helps Jose Sierra Procure Job in Computing


— By Keri Troutman

Jose Sierra, a 21-year-old computer engineering major at San Francisco State University, first became interested in working at the Berkeley Lab when he had a special week-long introduction to the high-performance computing at the lab in 2011 through an “IT Academy” program at his high school. Sierra, a high-achieving student from a high-poverty school, was one of a handful of students recommended by teachers at Richmond’s John F. Kennedy High School to attend the Lab program.

At that time, Sierra could only express his interest and willingness in working in the Computational Research Division—since he had emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. as a child, he didn’t have a work permit. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which would grant conditional permanent residency to some immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors, wouldn’t be passed for another two years.

“Jose had this determination about him—he kept in contact with us to let us know he was still interested and to give us updates on his status,” says Jon Bashor, the Computing Sciences communications manager who organized the program. “We also set up informational interviews for him at the Lab to help him learn about various career directions.”

Flash forward to present day and Sierra has just renewed his DACA work permit (it has to be renewed every two years) and has been employed as a student assistant in the Lab’s Computational Research Division since May 2013. He’s thankful both for the legislation and for the chance to get real-world experience in the field he’s studying.

“To me, there’s book smarts and real-world smarts,” Sierra says. “I didn’t want to finish school without having any experience of what a professional job is.”

Sierra travelled with his family, mostly on foot, from Guatemala to California in 2000. He was seven years old when he arrived. His parents struggled to make ends meet, but always encouraged Sierra and his siblings to do well in school and pursue an education. He took many AP classes in high school, along with enrolling in the IT Academy, which gave him a good grasp of IT fundamentals—basic networking and computer setup. He was the valedictorian of his IT Academy and earned a 3.8 high school GPA.

“We’ve been doing outreach with the IT Academy for about four years now, everything from job-finding skills to bringing students to the Lab to learn about computers and science,” says Bashor, who is on the academy’s advisory panel. “It’s a great program— with a 98 percent graduation rate compared to 60 percent for the school overall.”

A high school counselor helped round up scholarship money from various donors for his college tuition. He’s had a hard time getting all the classes he needs at SF State at times, so he’s managed to continuously attend school by signing up for classes at Contra Costa Community College as well.

“I was the first generation of my family to attend college right out of high school,” says Sierra. “Some of my extended family members didn’t understand why I would pursue my education not knowing whether I’d be allowed to legally work in the U.S., but it makes sense to me because I can take a college degree anywhere in the world.”

Right after high school, Sierra also helped his parents start a mobile car wash and detailing company. He managed the advertising and customer service for the small family business, which is still going strong. “The biggest thing I had to learn was the customer service side—explaining the service, understand people’s expectations,” says Sierra. “It taught me a lot about communicating with people, which is a skill I’ll always need.”

Sierra uses his communication skills a lot at the Lab, where he’s now working 20 hours a week doing general systems administration—basic computer support, managing servers, maintaining printers. “I really enjoy doing systems administration,” he says. “You are responsible for a whole lot of data that people need on a daily basis; I like responsibility.”

Sierra hopes to focus on hardware development in his future career and is looking forward to learning more about that in his upper division classes next year.