A Journey Towards a Master’s Degree, on a Pathway Paved by Scholarships
Everyone told Jaden “Jay” Connolly that scholarships weren’t available for graduate students. But Connolly, an MCIT Online student who plans to graduate in May, didn’t listen — and went on to be granted a total of $25,000 in scholarship support.
In this Q&A, Connolly shares strategies for a successful scholarship search and talks about the Penn Engineering Online experience.
How did you get interested in the tech field?
I didn’t study computer science in college, but after I graduated from UC Santa Cruz I started learning how to code so I could make an iPhone app for my parents’ cat, Kahuna, that they’re quite fond of … To poke a bit of fun at their affection, I created and released a video game. Initially, it was just a lighthearted jab, but they began proudly telling their friends that “their cat has an app”. In a roundabout way, it seems that cat was the catalyst for my venture into coding. I enjoyed the experience, so I went back to community college to pursue a degree in cybersecurity and computer science. While I was there I participated in a NASA program, which led to an internship at NASA and convinced me to get more training.
What got you interested in MCIT Online?
When I started looking into schools, I was considering both grad and undergrad programs. But then I found MCIT Online, and I fell in love. The program was perfect for me, because I already had an undergraduate degree, and I was looking at cybersecurity. I was lucky to get into Penn, and I’m very grateful to be a part of this amazing program.
What prompted your scholarship search?
At first I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get scholarships for MCIT Online, because everyone told me there aren’t any scholarships for grad students — including my brother, who works for a school. But I didn’t listen, and I started an online search.
How did the search go for you?
It went really well. I applied for more than 80 scholarships and received eight or nine, including a Bank of America ISC Cybersecurity Scholarship, a Wells Fargo Scholarship, and the ESET Women in Cybersecurity Scholarship. With all of these scholarships and some internships, I don’t have to worry about my tuition.
What do you want graduate students to know about scholarships?
The most important message is: Don’t believe the myth. There is a lot of funding out there for master’s students; you just have to find it.
Do you have tips on applying for scholarships?
The best way to find scholarships is through online searches at sites like scholarships.com. Some scholarships are based on merit, but others are based on things like how you overcame an obstacle to get to where you are. It’s important to figure out what each scholarship is based on and tailor your story to fit.
Any other advice for scholarship recipients?
I always write a long, heartfelt thank-you note for the scholarships I receive. Scholarship funders have told me that most people just write a line or two, and that they appreciate my longer notes. It’s the polite thing to do, but it also helps them remember you the next time you apply.
What has your academic experience been like as an MCIT Online student?
I’ve learned so much in this program. I can’t give enough credit to the wonderful TA’s, and the whole faculty is amazing. In particular, I’m learning a lot from Professor Boon Thau Loo. He’s so accomplished, but he tells us stories about his past mistakes — like when he was in high school, he competed in a coding competition and he messed up. It’s nice to know that he’s human too.
Any other highlights of your experience?
Penn’s mentoring program for new students is great. My mentor and I are both LGBTQ people. They made sure I got a mentor in my own group, which was cool because we could talk about LGBTQ issues. We met once a month, and he always answered my questions on Slack. I’m autistic, so I like to know every single detail about what to expect in each class I take. It really helped me out to have a mentor I could ask.
What career path do you plan to pursue after you graduate?
I would like to work for the government, either in data science or cybersecurity, and Penn is giving me the coding background I need. I’m learning all kinds of interesting things at Penn — I’m learning systems programming, I’m learning how to program in Python, and I plan to take some data science classes for my electives. They also have a cybersecurity class in networking. I just can’t thank the program enough because it definitely boosts your resume.