As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And 15 of Westmont College’s best and brightest are working in downtown Santa Barbara as a part of CATLab to solve some of the toughest problems facing the liberal arts college.
CATLab takes its name from Westmont’s Center for Applied Technology. It is a summer lab that is designed to help Westmont solve problems that normally would be extremely expensive. This year’s team is using the software SalesForce to help the admissions office manage data more efficiently, according to a news release.
These students are led by senior business and computer science major Dante Poleselli, who was a part of the pilot program last year. The pilot program included seven students who helped create software that “dramatically improved the donor relations, donor tracking and fundraising systems,” according to the news release.
The lab was the brainchild of Westmont College senior director for Advanced Services, Zak Landum, who serves as CATLab’s director.
The first person to be a part of CATLab was Kaylee Yoon, who opened the door for other students as Westmont was “amazed” at how much better what she built was better than what the college had. Though she graduated in 2019, she continues to work remotely to support the program, according to the CATLab website.
“It helped me believe that if I had a set of students working then we could replace the entire software product. And so we did that last summer and that was a success,” Mr. Landrum said about Ms. Yoon’s work with CATLab.
The students work full-time out of Westmont’s downtown office. They are paid $12 an hour, California’s minimum wage, for their work, along with gaining experience in programming and coding. The students also write posts about what CATLab is doing and are responsible for their social media posts. Students can intern at local tech companies two days out of a week, such as Mr. Poleselli, who works at Outside Open.
Mr. Landrum pointed out how CATLab has been beneficial for students, beyond the compensation and experience.
“We’re trying to pair students with internships in town at the same time as they’re working in the CATLab and this has been important because students came to me at the beginning of the summer, telling me how hard it was to get internships without prior experience and like a body of work they can point to. One of the things we’re really proud of that’s a result of the CATLab is that these students have a solid body of work they can take to any employer in town and show off what they’ve actually built, which is really impressive,” Mr. Landrum said, calling the program an “on-ramp to employment” that not many other schools offer.
Mr. Poleselli sees his CATLab experience as “pretty exciting,” and exclaimed that it is great working with his peers and an opportunity to be friends with his team.
“It’s been pretty exciting. Seeing what it started out as … a little program with a few students that didn’t really know what they were doing, to now this formal structure, has been exciting to see the program develop, see results come out of it. Just seeing a team grow and develop has been exciting,” he said.
The team is diverse in interests and backgrounds. For instance, Jonathan Lee, a junior data analytics major, is developing the application process of SalesForce. He got into CATLab because he was looking for a job and was brought on in February.
“What I think about what we’ve done so far is quite impressive and it’s a really good product for the amount of time we’ve had,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee is using his experience at CATLab to develop technical skills and to improve on writing production-level code. Though he still has two more years left as an undergraduate student, he is already planning to use his time at CATLab to help him apply to graduate school.
“It’s been really good. The flexibility that the CATLab allows because I also do research with one of my professors ? to be able to do research and work part-time at CATLab is kind of unique.”
Adding to the diverse group is Emily Peterson, a junior double-majoring in English and computer science. She is working on a website portal for prospective students.
“This portal will be a place for prospective students to get all of the information they need as they go into Westmont,” Ms. Peterson said.
She has been using her English skills to write blog posts and updates on what CATLab students are doing.
“Because I’m an English and computer science double major, while I’m also writing code and things along with the other programmers, I’m also writing tech-based articles about what the CATLab is doing and SalesForce and basically just a lot of topics that would be interesting for people who are interested in the CATLab,” Ms. Peterson said. She used her experience writing for CATLab to snag a position as a news editor for The Westmont Horizon, the student-run newspaper at Westmont College.
“It’s a great experience for both of my majors,” she said.
Mr. Landrum is proud of the work that the CATLab students have done, especially considering that they’ve only been on the job for 10 weeks.
“They have produced things that I would hold up against any company and say this is equally as good as the thing you are offering, which is amazing!” he said. He also gave some credit to SalesForce’s flexibility in why his team has achieved so much.
He hopes that other schools look into this example, which he describes as an “innovative approach.”
“What we hope to do is keep at the forefront of this partnering model and maybe bring some other schools into that and start similar things,” he said. “You can use your student workforce to build custom solutions that work extremely well for your school.”
CATLab hosts a “tech-focused leadership conference” called Enabling Impact at the end of the summer in which students present their work to higher education executive attendees. Last year, the presentation was described by Reed Sheard, Westmont’s chief information officer and vice president for college advancement,as one of the “five most impressive moments” he had ever witnessed, according to the news release.
The students are grateful for the opportunity to prove that they are able to handle projects that are traditionally not trusted to undergraduates.
“It’s proving that students are able to do things and able to learn things. We’re able to adapt and do things that traditionally aren’t given to us,” Mr. Lee said.