When 60-year-old Anita Perkins got an email in December 2020 about a free YWCA web design course geared toward women of color, she tried to get her daughter to attend.

“But the more I listened to the initial orientation, [the more] I took an interest, and she did not,” Perkins said. 

So that winter at the YW Tech Lab, Perkins took her first web development course, feeling encouraged by the presence of other students with whom she could relate. 

“There were more women around my age range who were also taking the course,” she said.

Slightly more than two years later, Perkins is pursuing a certificate in web development at Oakton Community College as she continues working in the insurance industry. 

The YW Tech Lab offers a free, virtual 18-week-long web-design course that has a track record of attracting mothers 35 and older looking for a career change, according to Kristin Drake, the workforce development coordinator at the Evanston YWCA chapter.

“Women interested in learning how to code for internships, entry levels [or for other levels of] employment” might find value in the program, Drake said, while adding that the class is open to all. “We’re geared to everyone. We’re not just geared toward women.”

The program, a partnership between the YWCA Evanston/Northshore and Oakton Community College, offers an array of support for students. The YWCA is a month deep into its fourth cohort with 17 members.

Origins of the program

In its first cohort in January 2021, many participants were people who had lost their employment due to COVID-19. Enrollment in each successive cohort has ranged from 8 to 25 members. 

YWCA introduced the program in its locations across the United States in summer 2020, after the success of a similar program at a YWCA in Madison, Wisc., caught the attention of an investor from Google. The funding supported the program at five locations, including the Evanston chapter.

The free, 18-week-long program amounts to 11 hours of virtual instruction per week, with 20 additional hours of homework weekly. It focuses on two main classes: web page development, which covers HTML and CSS, and advanced page development, which expands on the first class to teach students how to build additional web page interaction and functionality. 

There’s also a career development component in which students can network and attend an industry panel and lectures by guest speakers, as well as take part in interview practice sessions and a mock interview session. The YWCA also offers the assistance of the Women in Tech Council, a board of role models serving as access points for YW Tech Lab grads to acquire entry-level developer positions. The Women in Tech Council includes board members from companies like Google, US Foods, Robert Bosch and NextGroup.

Tech Lab offers Perkins chance at new career 

Around the time that the YW Tech Lab was preparing to accept its first cohort of students, Perkins was interested in changing the direction of her career. She wasn’t sure, though, exactly which path she’d take. She told the RoundTable she was looking for something that “created a passion within” her. 

Perkins was intrigued after listening to the Tech Lab orientation and seeing examples of “what you can do” with HTML, CSS and JavaScript. She was especially convinced to enroll because it was free, online and fit into her work schedule. 

“Prior to taking the course, I had no knowledge of web development,” she said. “Hearing the words ‘web development,’ I had no knowledge or no interest, or, you know, even [thought] of pursuing that.”

Perkins soon found that she enjoyed the creative process and was inspired by the potential of “where you could take that skill” of web design. After completing the two courses, doing some research and receiving encouragement from her professor, she decided she was just getting started. 

“I decided to pursue my web development certificate, which is what I’m in the process of doing now.”

The program offers ‘wraparound’ supports

According to Drake, the program is appealing because of the global reach of technology, and because it offers training for an IT industry rich with jobs. In addition, the program features coding instruction and a variety of wraparound supports. 

If a student encounters any kind of obstacle that prevents them from completing the program, the YWCA is willing to help. 

“We offer laptops to people if they need [them]. We try to work with people around childcare [and] transportation,” Drake said. The YWCA has helped students with gas funds and has also helped students leave abusive situations thanks to its expertise as a domestic violence organization. 

“It’s been greater than just those hard skills and learning through the technology. It’s been about supporting the individual as a whole person,” Drake said.

After a cohort completes the program, the Y attempts to follow up with people every three months for a year after they graduate, reaching out through surveys, emails and phone calls. 

“We always provide leads to all of our graduates,” Drake said. 

What’s next?

Perkins said those interested in the program should try it, even if they’re apprehensive about coding. She said professors are patient and available for one-on-one instruction. 

“Everyone has fears or concerns, but don’t allow that to stop you,” she said.

Right now, she wants web design to be her side business and is focused on building up her clientele. When Perkins retires, she wants to transition to using her tech skills full-time. 

“They say, just follow your passion, and everything will come. And, that seems to be happening.”

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to interview me for this article. I hope my experience encourages others to explore web development or follow their passion.