Growing up in a low-income family, with little adult support, Jerome Mannan, now 20, struggled academically and behaviorally. He graduated from Rainier Beach High School with a 1.4 grade-point average, and only after repeating his senior year. Upon graduation, Mannan didn’t know what he wanted to do, where he wanted to live or what direction he wanted to go.
But Mannan believed he was in control of his life and could do whatever he chose, which is why he enrolled in Year Up, a national nonprofit that gives low-income young adults the skills and experience they need for professional careers.
“It’s been life-changing,” he said.
In the first six months of the year-long Year Up program, 18- to 24-year-old students develop technical and professional skills in the classroom. During the second six months, they apply those skills at an internship at leading companies and organizations, such as Google, Microsoft, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and JP Morgan Chase Bank.
Seattle students earn 18 college credits and a weekly stipend of $150 to $280 and are supported by instructors, staff advisors, mentors and social-service personnel. There are 10 Year Up locations across the country, including Year Up Puget Sound, on Second Avenue and Vine Street. Each is funded by government grants, private funding, private donors and revenue from corporate partners.
Students go to the Belltown office every day from all over the Puget Sound area, including Lynnwood, Tacoma and Woodinville.
Choosing to succeed
Nationally, 84 percent of graduates are employed or attend college full-time within four months of completing the program, according to Year Up. Employed Year Up graduates earn on average $30,000 per year.
“I had to adjust a lot of my habits that came with me,” Mannan said, who now wears a buttoned-down shirt, dress pants and shiny, black shoes, as is required at Year Up (students must dress professionally). “I immediately started dedicating three or four hours after school to do homework.”
In Year Up, students want to work hard and succeed, according to Mannan, even if they’ve never applied themselves to school in the past. The atmosphere fosters a desire to achieve what they never thought possible.
“I also had to cut down on a lot of sugar to be able to focus more. I ended up getting 100 percent on my midterm. It’s been challenging in many ways, like in learning new material. But the support is here, too.”
Mannan’s former future plans were limited to playing professional football. Now, he hopes to get a good job after his internship and attend college full-time the following year.
“We have a high-expectations, high-support model,” said Lisa Chin, executive director at Year Up Puget Sound. “We have rigorous training and provide tutors, along with bus passes, licensed social workers and other services they need. But the sky is the limit.”
Chin said the program closes the “opportunity divide” where low-income, often minority, young people do not achieve as much as their higher-income peers, simply because their parents never went to college, they attended underachieving schools, did not have a supportive family-support system or they did not have access to such basic necessities as health care, housing and food. Instead, many get involved with drugs, gangs, crime and homelessness.
Year Up attempts to break the cycle of chronic poverty and underachievement.
Chin said that applicants must go through a rigorous application and interview process to determine if they are serious about working hard and changing their lives.
“The No. 1 predicator of success is the motivation the students bring with them. Our application process is designed to see how motivated they really are. They’ll have to do things like fill out our 15-page application and have multiple interviews,” she said. “By the time they make it through, the students have proven that this is something that’s really important to them. They each sign a behavioral contract, which stipulates what you need to do to get your stipend.”
Students who do not arrive to class early or turn in an assignment one minute late get a paycheck reduction.
Doing the job others don’t want
For the companies the students are placed with, the benefits are high. Students are hired as technicians and typically work for less pay than if the company were to hire someone with a bachelor’s degree. The company saves money while obtaining a highly capable worker.
“Liberty Mutual, for example, loves our students because they have such a high degree of professionalism,” Chin said. “Students from the University of Washington may not want to do the job, but our students do.”
Around 75 to 80 percent of students continue education post-Year Up. “They embrace education because they know it’s a way for them to advance their lives,” Chin said.
“Once corporate partners see the value we’re providing, the more they want to get involved, and the more young people’s lives change for the better,” she added.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have great mentors who have mentored me along the way to be as successful as I have been,” said Mike McCarty, an IT instructor at Year Up who started teaching last August. “I thought it was something I could do to give back in my own way.”
Aaron Johnson, a 22-year-old student, enjoys the opportunities Year Up presents.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’ve been very good in athletics, music and theater so I decided to try computers. Computers and pretty much the whole IT world has been something that’s been more of a challenge for me.… And it’s what I look for: a challenge.”
Sierra Davis, 23, said, “In high school I didn’t have a plan once I graduated from high school. But when my mom passed away, this was my only option. I wasn’t ready to go to college, and I didn’t want to get a regular job. This helped me narrow down what I wanted to do as a career. As it turns out, I’m great with IT.”
Jerry Bobo, 25, who was involved in the Casey Family Programs, an organization providing services for children in foster care or dealing with homelessness, said,
“This is a different avenue for me, something different than what I’ve done before,” he said. “And this is something I want to do.”
Year Up has two sessions a year: one that starts in August, and another that starts in March. The program serves 200 students per year.
Year Up is currently accepting applications for its March class. For more information, visit yearup.org.
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