For Sheradowa Washington, 44, of Lorain, Lorain County Community College’s new associate degree program in MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) has been a godsend.
Last year, Washington left her former life and moved to an apartment with her teenage daughter and young adult son. She was unemployed and about to be on her own for the first time in 20 years, and she was worried. She had held jobs managing and cleaning but had lost them, and her unemployment benefits were about to run out.
“At that point, I had maybe one more week of unemployment,” Washington says.
Beginning to panic, she went to the local OhioMeansJobs Center for help.
“I was using their facilities to log on to different websites to find employment, but I only have a GED and I couldn’t secure any positions,” Washington says.
Frustrated and sad, she says, “I looked up and I said, ‘Lord, guide me.’”
As soon as the prayer was uttered, she saw a flyer for LCCC’s MEMS program, advertising an information session about this unique industry-tailored, hands-on degree in the field of microelectronics, MEMS sensors and printed circuit board (PCB) assembly.
Washington went, and the decision to do so changed her life. At the session, which included a tour of the training lab, Washington knew immediately she had found her calling. She saw how small printed circuits are assembled and understood that the skills she would acquire in LCCC’s program would be in great demand. And the professor, Johnny Vanderford, impressed her with his enthusiasm.
“I was so excited about him being excited,” she says. “He made me feel like this was something I could do, even though I had been out of school for so long.”
Washington especially liked that LCCC’s program would allow her to attend classes and, at the same time, hold a paid internship.
“I could go to school part time and work part time, and in a couple of years, I would have an associate degree. How could I go wrong?” she says.
Washington applied to LCCC’s program and was immediately accepted. Placement tests indicated she needed to brush up on her math skills, but while she started with a lower-level math class than others in the program, she felt confident she could handle the workload, the academics and her family responsibilities.
Internship allows students to earn and learn
Near the beginning of the LCCC program, Washington landed an internship at SMART Microsystems, housed in the same campus building as the MEMS program. Launched in 2011, SMART Microsystems provides custom assembly services for microelectronic and MEMS components used in industries including aerospace, automotive, defense and biomedical.
Washington interviewed for the internship with the engineering manager, Bill Boyce; he called the next day to offer her a position. Washington praises the internship as one of the best aspects of LCCC’s MEMS program, saying she learns more from hands-on experience than she does “sitting in a classroom listening to lectures and then going home and reading. During the internship, I gained hands-on experience with the equipment, but I also got real experience with applications and processing.”
The MEMS program boasts 100 percent job placement success for graduates, and all students who have earned the associate degree in the past five years have received at least one full-time job offer. The internship program allows students to earn and learn, working in their field while earning money toward their tuition costs.
Upon completing her internship, SMART Microsystems hired her as a part-time engineering technician. Although Washington is still working toward her associate degree in MicroElectroMechanical Systems, she is able to support herself and her daughter, now 14. And after completing that degree, she plans to continue at LCCC and earn a bachelor’s degree in microelectronics.
“I also want to stay at SMART if they’ll have me,” she says.
Going for a bachelor’s degree
In June 2017, Gov. John Kasich signed a provision in the state budget bill into law that allows Ohio’s community colleges to offer four-year degree programs. LCCC is now authorized to deliver Ohio’s first applied bachelor’s degree by a community college.
For LCCC, “this is a fortuitous opportunity, with an interest in expanding the already popular MEMS degree into a formal bachelor of science degree in MicroElectroMechanical Systems, a field focusing on the manufacturing of printed circuit boards (PCB) and microelectronic products,” Vanderford says.
Vanderford works closely with businesses to determine the needs of skilled engineers and technicians in the PCB and micro-electrical industry, making sure the course content of the bachelor’s degree meets those needs. He says the future is bright for students in the MEMS program and local industry.
“Companies gain access to well-trained and interested workers, and students receive an affordable education in an industry expected to reach $26.8 billion by 2022,” he says.
Students learn how to use micro-and submicro-scale electronic components used to create electronic devices and components such as sensors, valves and micromechanical actuators. They learn how to embed these components in PCB and semiconductor chips and are trained to run the equipment for performing these processes.
And while the courses involve computer science, electronics and mechanics, Vanderford says, “It also takes a bit of art and artistic interpretation to learn the skills needed to work on a microscopic level.”
LCCC’s MEMS degree program is designed both for recent high school graduates and nontraditional students like Washington.
“More than half of those who are enrolled in MEMS classes are nontraditional students,” Vanderford says. “Some have degrees from other colleges (in journalism, fine arts, psychology, history) but couldn’t find a job in their field and want something that’s going to make them more marketable in the job market.”
His students have included jewelers who are used to working with precious metals, as well as veterans from every branch of the armed forces, including an Army veteran in his 60s who was a postman for much of his life.
Most students take two years to complete their associate degree, but they can earn certificates along the way, Vanderford says. The program offers a short-term certificate that can be earned in a semester and a one-year certificate, as well.
And, like Washington, most students find jobs within the first few months of enrolling because people with their skills are in great demand, Vanderford says.
To ensure that students are learning skills that will make them employable, Vanderford and LCCC work with industry-supporting companies to tailor the program content to meet their specific needs.
“Then we train the students in those needs, so when the student gets the internship, they already have some desperately needed skills, and when they get their degree, they can hit the workforce floor running,” says Vanderford, who, before coming to LCCC, worked for nine years in microelectronics, solar cells and sensors.
Succeeding with LCCC support
Washington loves her job at SMART Microsystems and is grateful that LCCC afforded her the opportunity to excel.
“I do all kinds of different things and work on different processors,” she says. “It’s not the same thing every day.”
She does assembly work and also helps with testing and development of customer orders. And she enjoys working in the company’s clean room, where the environment is controlled to keep out pollutants such as dust, airborne microbes and aerosol particles.
And while she continues to work toward her associate degree at LCCC and work part time, Vanderford has been extremely accommodating, Washington says. Last semester, when she piled too muchon her plate, he helped her rearrange her classes and schedule. She credits LCCC and its caring faculty with fueling her drive to succeed.
“I don’t think I would be standing on my own two feet if it weren’t for the extraordinary, special team of individuals at LCCC who have helped me to get where I am today,” she says. “I am in the best place now with the most life-changing opportunity, and I am grateful to be able to take advantage of what LCCC has to offer.”