For many young people, the hardest part of life comes after they’ve graduated from high school or earned their GED and the question becomes, “Now what?” For any number of reasons, there may be no direct path leading them into either college or the workforce.
Year Up is a relatively new national and local support organization for urban 18 to 24-year-olds that bridges that breach by offering them the opportunity to start a professional career after only a year.
During the first six months of the program, students attend classes at Year Up, earning college credits and learning technical and professional skills that prepare them for success in a corporate environment. During the second six months, Year Up students gain experience in internships at leading businesses in their area.
The organization addresses students’ social and emotional development and provides the appropriate support systems to place these young adults on a viable path to economic self-sufficiency, while at the same time providing a weekly stipend to students for the year they’re in the program.
Alan Anderson, executive director of the Chicago branch of Year Up, says that within four months of completing the program, 89 percent of Year Up Chicago students are either employed at a company making a livable wage of at least $15 an hour, or in school working toward a college degree.
That’s a little higher than the 84 percent average for national Year Up students who show these same positive outcomes.
Year Up was established in Boston in 2000 by Gerald Chertavian, a Wall Street type who had mentored a young man in a Big Brothers program. He thought the young man deserved an opportunity and agreed to pay his college tuition if he graduated from high school and maintained good grades in college.
The experience moved Chertavian enough that after he co-founded and sold a software development firm in the late ‘90s, he used his ensuing riches to form Year Up, which now has branches in Boston, Providence, New York, Baltimore, D.C., Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco, Puget Sound, and Chicago.
Since its beginning, some 7,500 students, about 60 percent Black and 20 percent Hispanic, have been served by Year Up nationally, with 100 percent of them being placed in internships with over 250 corporate partners.
The Chicago branch, opened barely three years ago, has served over 300 students to date (85 percent Black and 12 percent Hispanic), and has also placed 100 percent into internships, with over 40 employer-partners, according to Anderson. “We started with a class of 25 students back in September of 2010. This year we will serve about 160 students, then 200 next year, and 240 the year after that,” he says.
There seems to be a numbers game that contributes to Year Up’s enviable and much needed success track record.
Speaking of the student demographic Year Up serves, Anderson notes, “In this country, there are over seven million young adults who are in that age group 18-24, out of school, out of work and with no path to get into either. In the Chicago market, there are over 100,000 of these people alone.”
On the other hand, he notes that in Chicago there are hundreds of thousand of jobs going unfilled and that nationwide there are “millions of jobs coming in the next decade that we need to find skilled labor for that doesn’t require more than a high school diploma or GED,” plus some extra specific training.
“The disconnect is because there is no formal way of identifying what exactly are the skills that are necessary, and what needs to happen to prepare somebody effectively so they can go into those roles,” Anderson says.
That is what Year Up does so well.
Students are trained in information technology skills – fixing computers, systems administration, reimaging and debugging software, setting up networks, working with server applications, help desk support, building cables, coding, building websites, some programming and project management, installation, etc.
But just as importantly, they learn office protocol and business etiquette through such classes as time management, working in teams, customer service, workplace norms, introduction to business, goals setting, presentation skills, conflict resolution and negotiation, and communicating clearly and effectively.
Students sign a contract, just as they might with a corporation, stipulating things they have to stick to, like being on time, dressing professionally, and working well with others. They have to show up Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. and there are group meetings to start the week at “Monday Morning Kickoffs” and to end it, at “Friday Afternoon Feedback”.
“If the contract is violated, there’s a consequence: you get demerits and lose part of your stipend,” Anderson explains. “You start with a point total and if you get enough demerits that you get to zero, you’ve fired yourself.
“We not only want to make sure they operate in a professional environment, but just as importantly, we want to show the students respect by not marginalizing them in ways they may have been before, by holding them to a higher standard and making them accountable.”
Year Up is not for everyone. Anderson says the program targets “motivated young adults who want to be successful and who have the desire, but just need some support and direction to get there.”
He says, “If you’re a person who can go to school or go to work without this program, you’re not going to be admitted because you already have a path. You may have a support system that’s going to encourage you and provide you access to college or careers.
“On the opposite end, if you are a person who may have challenges like low motivation, persistence with incarceration, and really no focus and drive to move forward, we’re not going to be able to help you, either.”
Anderson says that typical Year Up students have between two and four challenge areas – “could be that you are homeless, there are issues around foster care, you could be in need of support around childcare if you’re a parent, minor criminal issues, you could be a victim of domestic violence and may need some counseling to get through the challenges associated with that.”
For these students, there’s a licensed clinical social worker on staff and social worker interns for case management support. Anderson offers, “We can refer people to agencies that can help around those challenges…be they societal, housing, childcare, or academic, depending on if you have severe academic disabilities or needs. We assess that as well, and have some supports in place to help solve it.” And the students get professional mentors as they go through the internship phase of the program.
The bottom line goal, Anderson says, is “to make sure people are successful in the end.”
On a tour of Year Up’s offices at 223 West Jackson, which happen to be right across the street from the City Colleges of Chicago’s Central Office, tour guide Kayla Heath points out a full-length mirror near the portion that houses the classrooms.
“Each morning it allows us to take a look at ourselves and see if we are properly dressed for the corporate environment, to see how people will perceive us when they look at us,” she says, adding that there’s a nearby closet students can choose more appropriate clothing from if necessary.
Kayla, 23, has been a Year Up student since March. She starts her internship in August and graduates in January 2014. As we toured, Kayla was kind enough to share her personal story.
She graduated from Simeon High School in 2008 with plans on attending DeVry University to study information systems.
“But I found out I was pregnant and it was going to cost me so much money to go there. I felt like I wouldn’t be prepared or focused, so I chose not to go that road anymore,” she says.
Kayla took two courses at DeVry and went to South Suburban College and Harold Washington College, where she heard about Year Up from another student there.
“I looked them up and was really inspired by their mission statement to change the urban community and provide opportunities. They believe that young people have talent and don’t get a chance to show it.
“I attended an orientation and realized it was more than I had hoped for. That’s when I knew it was for me and did everything I could to get in the program.
“Year Up is different from any school I’ve attended. I love it here. Some of the students see it as school, but some students, like me, see it as a work environment.”
Kayla lives on the South Side with her family, including her four-year-old daughter who will start pre-school in August.
“The background I come from is a single mother and my mother was on drugs, but I was always driven and resilient to the environment that I was in,” Kayla says.
“I always knew that I wanted to change; I always knew that I wanted better. It was hard though, trying to work, trying to go to school, trying to take care of my daughter all by myself, so when I discovered Year Up, it was like somebody was willing to help me.
“I have two older sisters and an older brother who have never been exposed to as much as I am learning in this program and my oldest sister is 35. I’m 23.
“This means a lot to me. I consider it like my second chance to start over. I’ve always been kind of driven, always worked a job, always tried to balance school and work, so when I found out about Year Up and that there was someone actually willing to help me better my life, help me receive a stipend – pay me, to do better with my life! – it does mean a lot to me.
“The stipend is not the most important part. It does help when you know that you have other obligations outside of here, but life isn’t really money and when you realize all that Year Up offers – actually being able to earn college credit, actually being able to network with so many different people, actually being able to wake up every morning and leave wherever you live to come to the center of downtown Chicago and walk with all these different people from all these corporate offices.
“I got the chance to meet our founder, and it was very emotional to meet the man who had the vision and actually see the person who believed in me and is responsible for where I am in my life now. I couldn’t keep my composure.
“Upon completing my internship, I would love to obtain a full-time job – it’s not guaranteed – but while I’m in my internship, I plan to spend time with each and every person I meet, and whether I get hired or not I want to make sure they remember me so that when I leave I will have a network of people I can go to.
“I will finish my schooling. I plan on getting my bachelor’s degree in business management and hopefully work towards getting my master’s degree. I want to open my own business and then be passionate and part of something like Year Up, where I can be able to help, too.”
(Editor’s Note: For more info on Year Up Chicago as either a potential student or employer-partner, please contact Alan Anderson at 312/726-5300 and visit the website at www.yearup.org.)