Year Up Chicago is a one year, intensive training program that provides under-served young adults, ages 18-24, with a combination of hands-on skills development, coursework eligible for college credit, corporate internships and wraparound support. It began in September 2010 and has been welcomed from both corporate and community partners. Its founding partners include Citadel, jP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, CDW, Unisys and AON.

Executive director, Jack Crowe, and Jeffery Cullar, regional director of corporate engagement, talked to the Chicago Defender about the program and its impact.

Year Up Chicago’s mission is to train up and connect the right people in the city. The organization has the smartest young people in Chicago walk through their doors, but they don’t have that backpack of connections. Its mission is to provide them with the technical skills and the soft skills that they know are in demand in the Chicago economy.

It is open to young adults from 18 to 24, who are not enrolled in college or working a minimum wage job. Students receive a stipend while enrolled in the program and receive college credits.

“We’re building those skills because there is too much demand in Chicago for young adults. We’re going to have nearly 70 internships with Bank of America. They are not doing that out of charity; they are doing it because of the need to fulfill positions for their Information Technology, Management, Mortgage, and many more roles,” Crowe said.

The first week of the program is intense. The students are set to embark on a one-year journey, with the hope they will change for the better. Many things that they’re holding onto — buddies and unhealthy patterns that create the same thing with different results – is just the start to break the cycle and begin the process of letting go of the past and saying hello to the future.

“It’s a bit of a challenge because one guy says, Hey I got to take this tie off before I go back to my neighborhood but at the same token how do you pull or lift while you climb. I got to think back to like if I do this, others will say Hey I notice something different about you but share why you are different. It’s a process and the first few weeks are very sensitive they get emotional because they talk about some deep things and we ask and prepare them to make a change in a commitment that will change their life forever,” Çullar said.

The first 21 weeks is about learning and development. If they make it through that and earn their internship, they will go the next 26 weeks with partners in a role where they’re doing meaningful work.

“I look for people they don’t think that they have a chance or some people who don’t think that talent looks like them, so we’re trying to change that. As a part of my role we find out what the market is looking for, we go out we have these conversations for internships at companies. I’m also talking to them about their needs, what else are you looking for, where are you going in the future. I’m listening to what they’re saying is so I can come back to Jack and the team and say okay well in 9-15 months from now we’re going to need data analytics, this is something that we also have been hearing a lot, so now we’re going to put in our curriculum,” Çullar said.

As part of student services, all participants are drug tested.

“We do it because 50 percent of companies test employees for drugs when you come in the door, and that’s just a fact if you smoke weed or any other drug, you’re going to get drug tested, and they’re not going to hire you. We’re just trying to help you with that so we have drug cessation groups to help young people wean themselves off so that in six months they can pass the drug test,” Crowe said.

Year Up Chicago at Harold Washington College Campus launched in March 2018. At the Harold Washington College campus, participants are enrolled in Year Up and as a student at Harold Washington College. In addition to high support from Year Up staff, participants have full access to college resources, which include academic and advising support.

“That’s why the alumni are so important because they’ll say no I’m working now and we have 1300 alumni students they’re working at Groupon, Career builder, you name a company in Chicago we have alumni’s there working every Department throughout the city we have many dreamers that come through the program,” Crowe said.

Jerome Watkins is a participant in the program. Before he came to Year Up Chicago, the 24-year old was doing a few odd jobs, which included construction work and teaching people how to play chess.

“I want to help make a change in my community first and foremost but contribute to the mission that they have in place. It’s a real mission; it is a real movement. I love going here it’s become a real centerpiece of life for me so the culture, the teaching points, built me up as an individual on how to build you up as an individual Professional but more so than that as a human being is a powerful thing that they’re doing here,” Watkins said.

Year Up Chicago is admitting young adults for their next cohort in September.

For more information on how to sign up for Year Up Chicago, visit www.yearup.org.