On the day Sean Chen tagged along with his mother Sherry and sister Valerie on their trip to NR Learning Center (NRCLC) in Orange County, California, he probably didn’t foresee the profound impact the visit would have on his future. He was, after all, only 11 years old. Chen, like his older sister, had an interest in computing, and the Chen parents had been looking for ways to help promote the youngsters’ technological curiosity. Chen’s mother had come across a discount gift certificate on eBay for NRCLC, and brought Sean’s older sister in to try her hand at a certification exam.
Chen was slightly intimidated entering NRCLC – an understandable reaction for someone who had yet to reach high school. But any fears he may have had were quickly quelled by Vazi Okhandiar, founder of NRCLC. Chen took NRCLC’s evaluation for aspiring IT professionals, and while he may have been a little nervous, he wasn’t shy about asking questions. Okhandiar got a read on the adolescent’s serious interest in IT hardware, handed him a flyer promoting CompTIA A+ certification, and explained all that being CompTIA certified could offer him. With Okhandiar as his mentor, Chen went on to get his CompTIA A+ certification at the age of 12, followed shortly thereafter by his CompTIA CTT+ certification.
“Initially I was surprised to see such a young kid interested in certification,” Okhandiar said. “But once I started talking to him, then certification [seemed] like the right thing for him to have in order to be able to have adults take him seriously. He was interested in helping people.”
Chen took to tinkering with computers early. His mother encouraged it, letting her kids play with her computer without restrictions from an early age. The result?
“Of course, they broke my computer,” Chen said. “But that helped them build their interests.”
And build those interests it did. By the time Chen was eight, around 2006, he had figured out ways to troubleshoot the syncing process for early models of iPods, and started uploading tutorial videos about the process to YouTube. Thus, even from the outset, he wanted not just to learn, but to teach.
Chen’s desire to teach people about IT resonated with Okhandiar, who started NRCLC in 2002 with that as her goal. The center provides technology training and certification opportunities to students of all ages. A long-time computer enthusiast with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, along with her MBA, Okhandiar’s investment in NRCLC is a personal one. But her desire to help Chen cultivate a structured, professionalized take on his IT education is perhaps even more personal. The spark that Okhandiar saw in Chen was a familiar one.
Chen’s precocious curiosity reminded Okhandiar of one of her own sons. At the age of eight, her son had not only learned the ActionScript programming language, but had programmed a game that he was able to sell. But being so young, his further education in computers was put on hold. Okhandiar was at the time unaware of CompTIA certification, and didn’t see a logical next step toward which she could help him direct his energy.
While these days both of Okhandiar’s sons are successfully pursuing tech paths at the college level, she has wondered how either may have benefited from being able to get IT certified early on. So when she saw another early-blooming tech student, she felt obliged to guide him toward the opportunity.
“I don’t think people know that there are certification programs that these kids who are ahead of the curve can take, and that they will help them in getting admitted into computer science schools,” Okhandiar said. “Computer science is a really competitive field now and having these technical certifications can help them with the admission process.”
As the IT field grows more competitive, and as young people are inundated with technology at earlier ages, these types of training opportunities are becoming important at the high school and even middle school level. Because certifications like CompTIA A+ have no age limit, they offer opportunities for students to prove their knowledge, potentially paving the way to scholarships, college admissions and perhaps even head starts on careers. Okhandiar said that a recently certified NRCLC student has, at the age of 15, received an internship at Johnson & Johnson. For Chen, his certifications gave him a taste of professional success early on.
With both a CompTIA A+ and a CompTIA CTT+, Chen was set up to teach. Then, the Chen family, along with a cousin and a friend, started a non-profit institution called Skills Enrichment Learning Foundation (SELF). Through SELF, the Chens provided IT tutoring and promoting certification to the underprivileged, as well as veterans and aspiring teachers. Chen joked, “They said that if I wasn’t so young they would have taken me to go for a drink.”
Now, as he begins his senior year in high school, Chen has taken on new leadership roles, and has used them to spread the word of IT education and certification. Over the summer, he took the role of technology commissioner for his school, acting as a liaison between the student body and the administration on matters of technology. In this position, he has worked with the school in hopes of making students more aware of the opportunities available to get certified and the positive impact it can have on students’ prospects for college and beyond.
As Chen works on college applications himself, he continues to show that when it comes to computers, it’s not how old you are, it’s what you know – and CompTIA certification proves that knowledge.
“I not only see myself as getting more certifications and more knowledge about IT, I see myself being able to help others learn more about IT and help them pursue the same career as I did,” Chen said.
Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.