About 100 Byte Back students and supporters gathered Thursday evening for a graduation ceremony. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit serves about 550 students per year.

“I felt like technology had grown up around me, and I was losing the battle,” said Demika Alston, a Byte Back graduate. She spoke to a crowd of about 100 Byte Back students and supporters Thursday evening at the nonprofit’s biannual graduation.

Byte Back, a 21-year-old organization based in Washington, D.C., provides free tech career training for about 550 students per year. When they start, most students are unemployed or underemployed, about a third are homeless or have unstable housing, and two-thirds receive government benefits.

“I’m passionate about helping other people get the same kind of opportunities I’ve had in my life,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, executive director of Byte Back.

The leader of Byte Back has its mission close to her heart. Like many Byte Back students, Lindsey grew up financially unstable but saw that education was the key to success and to supporting her own family.

Demika Alston speaks to an audience of graduates and supporters Thursday at THEARC in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Byte Back’s program and now works for the organization as an administrative assistant.

Byte Back is one of the only organizations in the country where an adult who has never used a computer can start with digital basics, move up to IT and Microsoft certifications, and successfully move into a living-wage career.

Digital education is essential in today’s economy. Having tech skills is no longer a bonus; it is a necessity. In just 14 years, the US economy lost about 28 million low-tech jobs, according to 2017 research from The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. These jobs have either disappeared or they now require medium- or high-tech skills.

Though technical skills are important, Lindsey and other Byte Back staff at graduation made it clear that the journey doesn’t end in the classroom. The organization works with companies who help coach students in workshops, mentor them one-on-one, host them at tech tour field trips, and hire graduates once they complete the program. All of this is free for participants.

The pathway of training – from digital literacy to recognized tech certifications – has real results. In 2017, 60 graduates were hired into new jobs, earning $24,000 more per year than they did before Byte Back classes. Lindsey said numbers are coming in for 2018 and the payoff is even higher now.

Under Lindsey’s leadership, Byte Back has gained national recognition in the past few years, winning substantial Creator Awards from WeWork, leading a panel at the international tech event SXSW, and most recently winning a $1 million CAD grant from TD to expand to Baltimore.

“When I first walked into Byte Back back in 2011, it was a rowhome,” said Denise Johnson, an alumna of the program who spoke to graduates. “My class was in the basement.”

“Now, it’s 2019 and Byte Back has grown into an amazing nonprofit,” Johnson said.

In 2017, Byte Back launched classes in Prince George’s County, Md., its first site outside of Washington, D.C. About a dozen graduates just got certified in the Comp TIA IT Fundamentals course, and now they’re moving up to A+ certification to train for careers in IT support.

“You guys are getting an education that people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for,” Johnson told graduates. “People go into debt for this education.”

Because Byte Back’s courses are free for students, the nonprofit must raise funds for the classes, which can cost more than $15,000 per student for multiple courses on the pathway. Byte Back is funded by the D.C. and Maryland governments, corporations, foundations, and private donors, many of whom are local and in the tech sector.

What stands out most about the expanding organization though is the determination of individual students.

“The thing that I’m most proud of at Byte Back is the impact we make in helping folks like you move into jobs,” Lindsey told graduates. She spoke about the unique sense of community and support that students get at Byte Back – not just from instructors and staff but from each other.

Alston, the graduate who felt left out of tech for so long, wasn’t left out forever. Thanks to the pathway of courses she completed at Byte Back, she said, “Today, I’m proud to say my long-term goal has come true.”

After 20 years working in restaurants, Alston found stable, sustainable employment just down the hall from her old classroom. She was hired as an administrative assistant last year at Byte Back, where she uses her training and Microsoft certifications to help students following in her footsteps.

“The feeling of coming to an office every day, sitting at a desk, and working with a great team feels amazing,” she said. “I get to pay it forward and help students who were just like me, so they can find living-wage jobs to provide for their own families.”

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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