Tristan Thrasher knew he wanted to do more.
Working at a pizza shop in Tulsa, the 23-year-old was saving money in hope of resuming his pursuit of a college degree, which had been put on hold because of costs.
Then his mother brought him a cut-out newspaper article about an engineering school that changed Thrasher’s outlook.
Holberton, a tuition-deferred software engineering school, hosted a grand opening in downtown Tulsa on Wednesday, and Thrasher is one of the students enrolled in the first class, which began in January.
He had a background in science before he applied to the school, once studying astrophysics at a state university, but the makeup of the student population overall is a mixed bag.
Fellow student Staci Aaenson-Fletcher, 34, said she had zero coding or tech experience, but a mentor convinced her she had the brain for the school, so she applied.
“It was daunting,” she said. “There were things immediately that I didn’t understand or didn’t know, but they take you through it step-by-step.”
Once past the application process, students have 30 days to try out the program, and though the period is likened to trial-by-fire, student Kelsie Merchant said it gave her a realistic understanding of the expectations and workings of the school, such as peer-learning days, speaking assignments and mock interviews.
“It was also a mental challenge I don’t think that my life, up to that point, had provided to me,” Aaenson-Fletcher added.
Merchant, 25, earned a degree in engineering physics, but she couldn’t find a job that excited her.
Plus, something about her education bugged her.
Throughout the whole process, she noticed her peers either understood the science aspect of problems or they understood the coding aspect, but not both.
“I heard about Holberton and I got really excited about being able to be that bridge between the science side and the coding side,” she said.
Libby Wuller, executive director of the Tulsa branch, said Holberton is all about bridging gaps, and the school seeks to answer the decade’s forthcoming demand for technical jobs with skilled workers, as well as give potential students with a knack for the industry affordable access to the career path.
Holberton’s San Francisco-based co-founders created the school to answer problems they saw in the talent pipeline of software engineers: graduates crushed under mountainous debt, homogeneous candidates and university curriculum unable to keep up with the pace of technological evolution, Wuller said.
Besides being tuition-deferred, Wuller said Holberton’s nontraditional curriculum mirrors the workplace students will face once they graduate, focusing on technical as well as soft skills.
“Our program has no teachers,” Wuller said. “Our students learn through project-based learning and peer-to-peer learning.”
Mayor G.T. Bynum gave remarks at the ribbon-cutting, alongside Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce Sean Kouplen.
Bynum said the current generation of Tulsans is building the city they want Tulsa to be, and it’s obvious in the built environment, such as Gathering Place or massive businesses opening headquarters.
“But I think of greater importance than all those physical investments is the investment in people,” Bynum said. “And harnessing human capital that we have here.”
The city Tulsans want is one of opportunity, and Holberton is a school based on talent, Bynum said.
“It’s not about who can pay the tuition or who’s comfortable taking on the debt,” he said.
Kouplen, on behalf of Gov. Kevin Stitt, described the opening of Holberton in Tulsa, the third campus opened in the country, as a win-win-win for students who get the opportunity without the up front expense, for companies desperate for skilled workers and for the city and state overall.
“When you think about who do we want to be, what brand do we want to have, who do we want to be known as all over the world — this is it,” Kouplen said. “We want to be a tech economy.”