Last January, Lindsay Beckman was struggling after a series of low-paying jobs. The single mom was grateful that she could bring her two young daughters to the office of a pest-control company where she worked as a receptionist, but she wanted more out of life.
"I wanted to get a degree," says Beckman, 26 of Hanover Park. "And I wanted to get a degree fast."
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Today, as a graduate of the eight-month fast-track program at Computer Systems Institute in Elgin, Beckman is working as a medical assistant for Northwest Suburban Urology Associates in Elk Grove Village.
"It's nice to have somebody say, 'Oh, you do a good job drawing blood,'" says Beckman, who spends much of her workday using a variety of equipment to run tests on urine and blood samples.
"We really like Lindsay. She's very sharp. She's very friendly. She's good with patients," says Judith Jerome, business office manager for the urology practice. "She's willing to be cross-trained to do other things in the office. She's got a great attitude. We'll help her learn more and do more."
Beckman's quick path to success isn't uncommon, says Thomas Claxton, vice president of career services for Computer Systems Institute, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and has campuses in Elgin, Gurnee, Skokie and Chicago. The school helps single moms such as Beckman by providing free tutoring and transportation to a child-care center, which Beckman's daughters, Chyanne, 2, and Haileigh, 4, attended free with government assistance. Of the CSI graduates who earned certificates to work as medical assistants last year, 69 percent of those on the Elgin campus found jobs, Claxton says.
In this economy, lots of adults are turning to trade schools in the hopes of finding paths to new careers. Beckman started classes last January, took her last final exam on her birthday in September, attended the quarterly graduation ceremony in November and immediately found her dream job.
"I really wanted to work in a doctor's office," says Beckman, who adds that she expects to make three to four times as much in 2014 as she did in those years when she would struggle to earn $10,000. Beckman qualified for federal Pell Grants, which helped cover some of the $15,000 cost of tuition and books. She says she is making enough now to pay off her loans quickly.
Beckman says she always earned good grades in school, in spite of moving from Streamwood to South Elgin and the extra burdens placed on her when her parents separated temporarily.
"I felt like a mom since I was 14," says Beckman. "I really didn't like high school at all."
After graduating from St. Charles North High School in 2006, she took some college classes with a plan to become a gym teacher. Instead, she quickly learned "that I didn't want to be a teacher."
Working at menial jobs and living at times with her parents or the fathers of her children, Beckman says she realized that she needed more schooling to be able to live on her own with her daughters. "I tried going back to school, but I just didn't have the support," she says.
Searching online for new careers, "I was applying for jobs like crazy, and I must have hit something," she says, explaining how she clicked on a link that made CSI reach out to her.
"I was nervous," recalls Beckman, who started classes on Jan. 28 last year with night classes five days a week. "Sometimes I didn't go to school because I didn't have anyone to watch my kids."
When she switched to classes from 8:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m., she took advantage of the day-care program to get the most out of her courses. She often stayed after class to get extra help.
"The teachers and the resources are there, but you have to want it," says Beckman, who now returns to the school to talk with students and encourage them to match her success.
Many of the CSI graduates are parents such as Beckman who are looking for new skills and careers, Claxton says. But the 1,200 students spread across the campuses range from teenagers to octogenarians.
"The oldest student was in her 80s," Claxton says of a grandma who enrolled in the business career program. "She wanted to help her granddaughter start a restaurant."
Beckman says she wants to share her story to encourage others, especially young moms, to seek more education.
"It was a tough road, but it was totally worth it," says Beckman, who says many people told her the odds are stacked against single moms going back to school. "I almost quit. I'm glad I didn't give up. I stayed. And I proved them all wrong."