After just one summer vacation, a 19-year-old is now a WGU college graduate, a cyber security analyst at industry-leading firm CrowdStrike, and a proud homeowner of a 2,300-square-foot San Antonio property.
Last June, the Moreno Valley native, Efren Zamaro, was just another senior tossing his cap to celebrate high school graduation at Valley View High.
Shortly after graduating, Zamaro enrolled at Western Governors University, a fully online nonprofit university. Less than four months and just $4000 later, he emerged with a bachelor’s degree. Just three months later, Crowdstrike handed him his professional debut.
This is not how the game was designed to be played. In a college meta where just 1 in 4 university freshmen will graduate within four years — let alone months — the question remains: how exactly did he do it?
Pandemic breaks the deadlock
In a world mired in uncertainty amidst a global pandemic spanning nearly two years, Zamaro was at least certain about one thing: he would make a career out of cybersecurity. Next, he just had to figure out how.
After graduating, Zamaro was at an impasse when it came to taking his first steps into higher education. On one hand, many of his friends defaulted to going down the traditional four-year college lane. On the other hand, he wasn’t even sure if he would attend college at all.
Having decided on cybersecurity since his junior year of high school, Zamaro had a general sense of what he was supposed to do, based on his reading up on the industry.
“You could work IT for a few years, get a couple of certificates, and just transfer over to cybersecurity. Or you could just get a cybersecurity degree and then go work in IT for maybe one or two years instead, and then work in cybersecurity,” Zamaro said.
He initially tried to plant himself somewhere between the two options, eyeing part-time enrollment at Riverside Community College while earning certificates at a full-time IT gig.
However, the continuation of the pandemic and the revelation of online learning throughout the previous year left him wondering if he could find a way to take advantage of the boom in remote learning.
After doing some digging online, Zamaro came across Western Governors University, a well-known institution in cybersecurity circles more broadly acclaimed for its competency-based learning model.
The university would allow him to work self-paced and had integrated the skill-based certifications he needed to advance his career that Zamaro would have otherwise had to secure for himself at a traditional college — WGU had everything he could have asked for.
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When time is money: WGU and competency education
Western Governors University would argue that it, and its trademark learning model, has everything that everyone thinks they can’t have in higher education.
According to the university, competency-based learning is a model of education that prizes proficiency over seat time. In this model, students progress through courses as soon as they can prove they’ve mastered the material, instead of advancing only when the semester or term ends.
As of the time of writing, WGU remains the only degree-bearing institution that principally relies on the competency-based model, which it has championed since its founding in 1997.
“The competency-based model really gives students at WGU flexibility, accessibility, and the ability to accelerate their pace or slow down at their pace,” said WGU Western Region VP Rick Benbow.
“ [It] gives people ownership of not only the time they spend learning, upskilling, and reskilling, but also being able to control the costs simply because they can self-pace through the program.”– WGU Western Region VP Rick Benbow
While acknowledging his accomplishments as a “testimonial to his grit and resilience,” Benbow attributes Zamaro’s success to the potential of competency-based education and the benefits of self-paced learning amid sweeping issues in higher education being amplified by unprecedented circumstances with the emergent pandemic.
“As someone who firmly believes in the power of education, higher education, and what it can do to kind of change your trajectory… But I also know at this particular time that that comes at a cost, right?” Benbow acknowledged. “It comes at a cost of time, and the tuition costs are, you know, escalating, increasing year over year.”
Rising tuition costs are just one of the numbers painting a bleak picture for prospective college students. According to a 2021 report, the average cost of college has tripled over the course of two decades, sitting at $35,720 per student, per year.
Meanwhile, student loan debt remains one of the most pressing financial crises facing a generation whose posts in the workplace aren’t guaranteed by their exorbitant education spending. Student loan debt in the United States totals at $1.73 trillion and grows six times faster than the nation’s entire economy.
The numbers also speak to a plague of inequity in access to higher education, compounding social disparities on communities of color that are already grappling with any number of systemic ailments such as gentrification.
To that end, one of the broader visions championed by WGU is to increase accessibility to higher education. For the university, its model represents a more financially responsible future for the upper echelons of academia.
According to Benbow, WGU’s average college tuition is a little less than $4000 for every six-month term during which students can take as many courses as they want, given that they pass.
The returns are also hefty. The average increase in salary pre-enrollment at WGU afterward within four years of graduation is $20,000, nearly two and a half times more than the national average of about $8200.
Turning back the clock to his days as a student, Benbow reflected on how motivating it could be to see some of the usual hangups in traditional universities being addressed in a fresh way.
“Those are numbers, those are figures that, again, remove some of those barriers in a traditional model. That lets me know that this is possible. And so from that standpoint, I can make a more informed decision and feel pretty confident about pursuing the WGU model.”
Indeed, the approach has proven attractive to prospective college degree seekers with WGU having most recently celebrated reaching 250,000 graduates in its 25-year history on October 8.
Marissa Price, the graduate that checked off the landmark number, hailed the university’s structure in her endeavors.
“WGU created an opportunity for me where I didn’t have to take time off from work and where I could afford it with help from my employer. There’s no way that I could have done it without WGU,” she said.
Making the most out of every second at WGU
Like his fellow graduate, Zamaro is more than satisfied with how he was able to make the most out of what WGU had to offer, though taken aback by the magnitude of his success when all was said and done.
“I definitely didn’t plan to only do four months, that’s for sure,” Zamaro confessed.
At the beginning of his tenure at the university, he figured that it would take between six to twelve months to finish the entire program. Ultimately, he ended up finishing 30 classes in the span of four months to earn his degree.
Reflecting back on the experience, Zamaro reflected on what it took to be able to achieve what he did in such a short amount of time.
“I just ground it out, working eight-hour days at online school, seven days a week,” he said. “Toward the end, I was spending 10 hours a day and just breaking to eat.”
Zamaro says he was able to fall back on his athletic background in jiu-jitsu and wrestling in order to motivate himself to follow through with his goals. According to Zamaro, fighting and cybersecurity share a common “brute force” approach, citing a common piece of advice given to struggling beginners by senior cyber security analysts: “have you tried trying harder?”
For Zamaro, it made perfect sense that the industry appealed to his tastes in the first place. The workplace philosophy meshed well with his personal ambition.
“The sort of mentality I had all my life is that if something’s theoretically possible then that’s more than enough motivation for me to try to make it truly possible,” he said.
It wasn’t, however, for a lack of doubt. Imposter syndrome was an ailment that trailed him as he worked long hours each day to get through the course material. But the stressful time crunch proved to be a blessing in disguise as he couldn’t dwell on any misgivings for too long.
“I just don’t have the time to doubt myself, the only time that I have is to like, sit down, shut up, and just get it done,” Zamaro said.
He did just that.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” said Zamaro, who turned 19 this month. “I didn’t expect to get where I am this quickly. It’s a lot to process. But I’m glad I chose this route.”
He keeps in touch with high school friends who are starting their sophomore years at UC Riverside and Long Beach State. According to Zamaro, his friends represent a broader population of students spending four or five times more each year than he did for an entire degree, plunging into debt.
Although grateful for his own success, Zamaro lamented that his experience wasn’t mirrored across other campuses across the nation.
“The competency-based model needs to be adopted at more universities. I think the current model of a four-year university supports the average student, not the hard-working student who wants to go above and beyond and is passionate about what they’re doing.”
Snapshots of today and a word for tomorrow
Today, Zamaro marvels that he gets to ply his trade alongside the top experts in his field.
“I remember my first day at work when we were all introducing ourselves. Some guys were like ‘oh yeah I come from IBM’ and some other guy came from McAfee,” Zamaro chuckled. “Then I was like, oh yeah I come from school.”
Though intimidated at first, he found some familiarity in the constant grind in his workflow given the superfluous cybersecurity landscape. According to Zamaro, it doesn’t hurt to have a 2300-square-foot pad to come home to either.
The walls are thick and the “gorgeous” views of San Antonio nature and Six Flags help to remind him of how far he’s come his high school days in Moreno Valley.
Coasting forward with ample success in the rearview mirror, Zamaro hopes that the path he trailblazed will help to set a new standard of giving deserving students the keys to their education and liberating them to pursue their professional aspirations.
He urged everyone after him to push for those extremes.
“Never let anybody, including yourself, tell you what you can or can’t do. Because you are your own worst critic. You always tell yourself that you can’t do things, even though you’ll be able to do them if you just try.”Efren Zamaro