Bachelor’s degree takes medical assistant in a new career direction
Changing careers takes perseverance, resourcefulness, and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone. Jessica Aravena has these qualities to spare. A medical assistant for nearly 20 years, she will embark on a cybersecurity career, prepared with a Palm Beach State College bachelor’s degree in information management that she earned as a spring 2023 magna cum laude graduate.
Aravena, the first person in her Cuban-American family to earn a bachelor’s degree, had set out to become a nurse. But as a single working parent, her ambitions took a back seat until her daughter was older. By that time, however, she began to have second thoughts. Approaching 40, she was concerned about the physical demands of nursing and whether it would provide her with the quality of life she wanted.
Aravena, who had previous college credits, was already enrolled at Palm Beach State in 2020 to finish the coursework needed to apply to the nursing program. Instead, she completed her Associate in Arts degree and enrolled in PBSC’s Bachelor of Applied Science degree program in Information Management with a concentration in Security and Network Assurance, which prepares students to enter the cybersecurity profession.
“I decided to change my whole career direction and found that I was really interested in cybersecurity. It was something totally new that I had never thought about before,” Aravena said. “My brother-in-law, who works in data analytics, told me that cybersecurity was the next big thing, and when I looked into it, I saw there was a huge need for cybersecurity analysts. So I just went for it.”
Aravena was able to continue working as a medical assistant for Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Palm Beach Gardens while in the program. Most of her classes were online or live online, but she got plenty of hands-on experience in the College’s Cyber Lab, where staff and faculty help students master cyber-sleuthing skills. She became a member of the student-run Ethical Hackers Club and took part in several College-sponsored cybersecurity symposiums. She also asked a lot of questions.
“I think that more students need to start taking a bit more advantage of what the school offers, because it really does offer a lot,” Aravena said. “The Ethical Hackers Club hosted technology demonstrations and brought in many guest speakers who talked to us about real-life cybersecurity jobs and situations. And the teachers were always available and very helpful. If you have a question, they’re going to answer your question. But again, that’s if you are taking advantage of all the tools that Palm Beach State gives you.”
“Jessica is an excellent student, hard-working and disciplined,” said Dwight T. Elliott, J.D., PBSC professor of information management and Ethical Hackers Club faculty advisor. “She embodies many skill sets that are necessary to become a successful professional in the cybersecurity field. Technology changes and grows, and the student has to be willing to grow with it. Jessica has seized the opportunities available to her at the College to maximize her learning experience. She’s done a good job, a very good job.”
In the short term, Aravena will continue to support herself and her daughter as a medical assistant. During the program, she did an internship in the cybersecurity department at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, and while there are currently no openings, she hopes to use her new cyber skills in the health care industry, with a focus on governance, risk management and compliance. Meanwhile, she’ll be continuing her education this summer, enrolling in a PBSC boot camp to prepare for the CompTIA Security Plus certification exam and taking the Network Support Technician college credit certificate program to learn highly marketable Cisco security skills.
“While I’m going to miss the one-on-one with the patients—it’s pediatrics, so you watch these kids grow up—what I’m really looking forward to is actually starting a cybersecurity job where I’m able to be hands-on and actually do the work that I’ve learned about.”
Aravena was recently inducted into the Omicron Sigma Sigma Order of the Sword and Shield, the largest academic and professional honors society for all homeland security disciplines. At graduation, she wore the society’s stole and cord.
Aravena’s daughter, Julissa Davenport, is just shy of graduating from Palm Beach State herself. She will complete her Associate in Arts degree this summer and then, following her mom’s example, pursue her bachelor’s degree at PBSC. She plans to earn the Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management degree, with a concentration in Entrepreneurship, to further her goal of owning a dog spa.
“We’ve been together always, Julissa and I,” Aravena said, “and I know I wouldn’t have reached this milestone without her. If anything, it was she who taught me the most important lesson—that I could do anything.”