Nine aboriginal students from New Brunswick graduated Thursday from an intensive IT program designed to teach them to develop apps for both Apple and Android mobile devices.
Five of the students already have job offers from IBM in Bedford, N.S., and at least one is planning to set up her own business.
"I am so proud and honoured to be here today. It was a long journey, but we did it," said Erin Leaman, of Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, who will be joining IBM.
Leaman says the 57-week program, a partnership between the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI) and the francophone community college network, has opened up a whole new future for her.
The married mother of two says she had been working as a supervisor in retail sales, which she described as a good job that provided for her family.
"But I wasn't passionate about it. I wanted to do something I had passion for — something I would love," Leaman said following Thursday morning's ceremony at the Fredericton Inn.
'This, I knew, once I entered it, this could be a career — a life-long career. And I would be happy doing this.' - Erin Leaman, graduate
"This, I knew, once I entered it, this could be a career — a life-long career. And I would be happy doing this," she said.
"It was the best decision I have made in my life."
Fellow graduate and future IBM employee Jake Saulis, of Woodstock First Nation, is equally "ecstatic."
He says he "stumbled across" the course through the reserve and it's been "work, work, work" ever since.
But the opportunities are "unbelievably endless. It's awesome," he said.
'Opportunities are knocking'
Melissa Lunney, who heard about the program through word of mouth and "jumped at the chance," agrees.
"I actually had no direction in life. I really didn't know where I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do," said Lunney, of Elsipogtog First Nation.
"I now have the confidence to go out and get what I want," she said, which is her own business.
Lunney says she has an idea for a new app and has been accepted into a business accelerator program.
"Like I said, opportunities are knocking at my door right now."
Lunney and her classmates are the second cohort of aboriginal programmers from the Mobile Application Development (MAD) program.
It's designed specifically for aboriginal students by integrating a cultural component into their studies, according to JEDI, an aboriginal, not-for-profit organization dedicated to working with partners to foster aboriginal economic development in New Brunswick.
All of the graduates worked "very hard," said Liane Roy, president and CEO of the province's francophone community college network.
It's a very intensive course, she said, noting it can take up to two years to complete similar programs at other institutions.
Only nine of 12 students in the latest class managed to graduate, but Roy is confident they are equipped with the skills to be "very well prepared to be able to have good careers" in the field.