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There are few things more valuable to a fresh college graduate than hands-on work experience. Recently, the City of Kingsport’s Information Technology Department partnered with Northeast State Community College to give students just that.

“You’re always going to get that question at job interviews, ‘What kind of experience do you have?’” said Tom Huskisson of the city’s IT Department. “This partnership is a great way for students to get that experience.”

At Northeast, students in the Computer and Information Sciences program have to complete a capstone course and project to earn their associate’s degree. Huskisson, who taught at Northeast from 2008 to 2017 and continues teaching as an adjunct professor while working for the city, always wanted to give students an opportunity to work on projects that were more than theoretical.

So he decided to bring the students to work with him.

Huskisson coordinated with Dr. Donna Farrell at Northeast to bring 33 of her capstone CIS students to work with Kingsport’s IT Department. From February to April, the students assisted on all kinds of projects from extracting data from police databanks to manning the IT help desk. Huskisson wanted to give the students a cross-curriculum experience, not just in their particular concentration such as networking or cyber defense. In a small department like Kingsport’s—which has six people—you wear a lot of hats.

“We’ve done work like this in lab settings,” student Tony Feathers said, “but when you go and do it hands-on, that’s very different. I would always say, ‘Man, I hope we get to do some cool stuff today.’”

Huskisson said that the students were a great help to the department, allowing them to complete tasks they might not normally be able to with their small team. It’s also important, Huskisson said, for students to get a chance to learn “soft skills.” It’s one thing to know how to fix a problem with fiber cables; it’s another skillset entirely to be able to communicate with your team and ask questions.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this project,” student Steven Jones said, “is that these people that are employed are learning every single day. They admit when they don’t know everything, and that was the experience that affected me the most.”

Huskisson hopes to continue this partnership—and grow it even more. The IT Department is in early stages of developing a networking apprenticeship position in partnership with Northeast, which would be the first apprenticeship of its kind in the state of Tennessee.

Farrell’s goal with her capstone students, in this and every project, is to make her students well-rounded, competitive job applicants. She and Huskisson said their goal is to get other local organizations and companies to facilitate similar collaborations with Northeast to give students and businesses even more opportunities to grow and benefit from one another. “We have great students at Northeast,” Farrell said. “We have intelligent students with experience who can do this work.”