By Emma Kent
It’s early June, and upstairs in an unassuming building in downtown Water Valley, 16 students are working away on their laptops.
These students just graduated high school. Now, they’ve begun an intensive program called Base Camp Coding Academy that guarantees them a job in the tech industry in 11 months’ time.
So far, everyone who has graduated from the computer programming academy has been hired. That’s the goal.
Students come from a 50-mile radius that stretches from Pontotoc to Sardis to Charleston. They commute to the program every day, and Base Camp provides gas cards to fund their travel. In fact, the whole program, which is privately funded, is free thanks to Base Camp’s sponsors and partners. Students must be nominated, typically by a teacher or administrator at their high school, and then they apply after being nominated.
They learn to code web applications – or as director Sean Anthony put it, basically anything you can picture in a web browser. That includes apps like Instagram, online shopping or banking and other websites.
“They will have the skill set to make any of those online tools,” Anthony said.
What makes Base Camp even more accessible is that most students don’t have any coding skills before they start the program.
“We actually prefer that they don’t,” Anthony said. “It’s easier for us to start from a blank slate.”
In the summer, students spend most of their time in the classroom. They’re laying the groundwork for the months to come. Later in the year they do a long-term project designed to give them a taste of working on their own, where they must manage their time and meet deadlines. To determine the program’s curriculum, Anthony and Base Camp technical director Nate Clark kept their eyes on the end goal.
“Our sole metric is job placement,” Clark said. “It’s to get students employed.”
That’s why each day is designed to feel like a day on the job, with students arriving at 8:30 a.m. and heading home at 4:30 p.m. Base Camp is meant to equip students not only with coding skills, but also with life skills they’ll need to use in the working world like interviewing and public speaking. Base Camp students don’t have homework, as many of them have obligations like work and family outside of the program. However, they are expected to dedicate each day to Base Camp from start to finish.
“We respect that time with the expectation that when they’re here, they’re fully present,” Anthony said. “We treat it like a job.”
Why Water Valley?
It might make more sense for a program like Base Camp to locate somewhere like Oxford, just 20 minutes away, or Memphis, where many of the program’s employers are based. However, Anthony said the program’s Water Valley location is part of what sets it apart.
“I thought it would be more of a statement to do it in Water Valley,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of urban innovations pushed on rural communities, and they just didn’t work. This was the first time I’ve seen a rural model that could be replicated in a more urban area.”
Besides being a rural-based program, Base Camp is also unique in that it’s completely free to students, the program enrolls students right out of high school and it only takes 11 months to complete.
It all started when Base Camp’s executive director and co-founder Kagan Coughlin, who has strong ties to Water Valley, decided he wanted to get into the non-profit sector. Coughlin was working at FNC Oxford at the time, which is where he found now technical director Clark. Anthony was officially hired in February 2016, and four months later they welcomed their first group of Base Camp students. Anthony has a background in education and was a classroom teacher before joining Base Camp as its director. Clark has a degree in computer science from Mississippi State University.
Base Camp is in its third year. It has grown from 11 students in 2016 to its current group of 16 students, and they’re hoping to increase the program size in 2019. Next year they will move to a new location, just a few blocks away from their current set up on Main Street in downtown Water Valley. With a couple of years under their belt, the team at Base Camp plans to turn their attention to recruiting in the year ahead.
“We have a lot more interest and a lot more people seeking us out,” Anthony said. “It’s helping build the network.”
Anthony said at Base Camp’s inception, they had to reach out to schools to try to find a group of students to make up that first class. He said they pitched it to high school administrators and asked for students who would be good candidates. According to Anthony, Base Camp looks for students who have work experience, work well in teams and are all-around hard workers.
“A lot of the year is a grind, so we need kids who have that personality to push through,” Anthony said.
They want hard workers, because getting it done in 11 months is just that – hard work. The program is particularly grueling at the beginning, with students intensely studying to learn the basics for 40 hours per week. That was the case in early June, just a few weeks after students began the program.
“If we’re too relaxed, then we’re not moving quick enough,” Clark said. “This time next year they will be way happier with us.”
Base Camp works with companies like C Spire, FedEx, FNC Core Logic in Oxford, M Trade and the University of Mississippi. Helping grow the regional workforce is a big part of their mission. Companies in the area need employees. When they recruit out of state, they often lose employees after short periods of time because they don’t have ties to the state or region. By working with Base Camp, those companies are using the money that they spend to attract employees from out of state to invest in potential talent who are more likely to stick around.
According to Anthony, many students have immediate financial needs or family obligations that prevent them from spending two or even four years at a college or university pursuing a degree. Base Camp’s relatively short timeline is what attracted 18-year-old Henry Moore to the program. Moore lives in Coffeeville, about a 20-minute drive from Water Valley.
“I feel like it’s a great opportunity and a great jump start on life,” Moore said. “I’m really impatient, and a year-long program seemed best suited for me.”
Base Camp fast-tracks them to getting a well-paying job, allowing them to meet those obligations more easily and more quickly. Then, many graduates do go on to continue their education by earning a bachelor’s degree.
According to Anthony, many of the employers the program works with are willing to fund continuing education for their full-time employees, setting Base Camp graduates up with support they need to earn a four-year degree and beyond if they choose to.
The programming jobs Base Camp graduates end up getting are also good stepping stones to other jobs in the industry, which is really what the whole program is all about.
“We want them to be career-ready and have a foothold in a super solid career, not just a job,” Anthony said.