In 2011, Rock Valley College launched Running Start, a program that allows select, qualified, academically motivated students enrolled in Illinois District 511 public high schools an opportunity to earn both their high school diploma and associate degree concurrently by attending Rock Valley College full-time during their junior and/or senior years of high school. Since its inception nine years ago, over 500 students have graduated from Running Start. Currently 242 students from 11 high schools are participating in the program.
We recently caught up with Janet Saldana, a graduate of the Running Start program, to talk about her experience. Janet graduated from Belvidere High School and with her Associate in Science degree from Rock Valley College in 2012. She went on to attend Duke University in the fall of 2012.
Janet was happy to share the story of her journey with us.
The main draw for participating in Running Start was the challenge. I was comfortable in all of the classes I had taken in high school, and I was ready to push my own boundaries and become more independent. In that time, there had yet to be a graduating class for Running Start, so there were a lot of unknowns in the program. However, this added to the intrigue of the program, and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to be part of something great pass.
Tell us about your experience in the program itself and at RVC in general.
I thoroughly enjoyed my Running Start experience because it taught me so much at an earlier age, both in and out of class. The classes were faster, the expectations were higher, and the opportunities were greater. The Running Start students were thrown into classes along with everyone else and treated like adults, which meant we had to quickly learn how to act like adults. I made friends with the RS students and RVC students alike.
Do you feel like you were still able to enjoy “high school life” while participating in Running Start?
Everyone’s Running Start experience varies greatly. There are some who want to stay close to their high schools and others who want to transition completely over to RVC. I liked straddling both worlds. I was part of the dance team and student council back at the high school and joined the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society at RVC with a position on the executive board. There were times where there were obvious conflicts, like multivariable calculus class making me late to practice every Wednesday, but I learned to communicate well and balance my life’s priorities. You may miss some things at the high school like mid-day pep rallies or homecoming week dress-up days, but you don’t have to give up sports, clubs, football games, or prom. It all depends on each person’s class schedule and priorities.
What are some of the most important skills or lessons you learned because of Running Start?
Through Running Start, I learned that it’s better to give things a try, even if it’s scary, difficult, or unfamiliar. That’s where the best opportunities lie, outside of your comfort zone.
Tell us about your experience at Duke University and what led to your chosen career.
Studying biomedical engineering at Duke was simultaneously the most difficult and wonderful experience of my life. I made friends that are the most intelligent, passionate, and unique people I have ever met, and the world became bigger. I took classes with professors who are leading breaking edge research projects, like developing beating patches of replacement heart tissue. I did research at a neuroengineering primate lab. I learned to salsa dance on a team. I camped out for the renowned Duke Basketball games. I started a chapter for a Hispanic engineering club. I explored the intersection of technology and health, which is what led to my major which continues to excite me. And I failed many times too, which really only made me stronger.
Tell us about the ways you feel Running Start and RVC prepared you for your transition to Duke and then to your current career.
In RS, I had to learn to ask for help and to accept that asking for help is not a negative thing. If I knew everything in a course already, then why would I take the course? I’m not supposed to know everything and I continue to not know everything. It’s what kept things interesting at Duke and even now at my job.
Do you feel like you would have been ready for Duke right out of high school if not for Running Start?
I honestly tell people that if I hadn’t done Running Start, I would have had a drastically more difficult transition to Duke. When at Duke, I was placed in a complex environment of extremely driven and intelligent people, all with experiences much different than mine. Adjusting culturally to a top private institution is an extremely difficult process for a first-generation, Latina in the school of engineering. Therefore, having pushed myself academically and personally at RVC gave me a much stronger base on which to build and continue to grow.
Tell us about Optum (what they do and what you do there).
Optum is a healthcare information technology company that develops software and applications for clinics, doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. Optum focuses lots of resources on innovative projects in big data, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and, in the case of my project, genomics. I’m currently on a project that will create a test ordering platform for genetic testing. As the only systems analyst on my team, I seek to understand the big picture, investigate what should be built, study what technology and data is needed, and guide the development team down the right path. Even as my first job out of college, Optum has been really great about letting me create my own opportunities through the Technology Development Program and the work environment is really supportive to those who are still learning. I even got to co-manage an intern team this summer!
What would you say to a student (or parent) who is considering Running Start?
To anyone who is considering Running Start, I would say the same things I told my parents when my younger brother was deciding whether to apply. It’s important to recognize that Running Start is not for everyone. We all have different learning styles and different priorities, and each person knows themselves best. But if you’re on the line, I would apply and give it a try! The staff is really supportive and you can always transition back to your high school! But who knows, you may really thrive in it like I did!
What city do you currently reside in?
I currently live in Raleigh, NC, a tree-filled city close to my alma mater and in between the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like to keep busy! I’m on a salsa dancing team and we perform locally. I also still help my family’s Zumba studio in Belvidere whenever I get the chance. Another passion of mine is outreach into the Latino community and increased diversity and inclusion within companies, so I’m founding a non-profit with three other colleagues called “Minority Game Changers,” which hopes to inspire minority high school students to expand their minds when it comes to careers that are possible.
To learn more about the Running Start program at Rock Valley College, please go to rockvalleycollege.edu/runningstart.