As 55 graduates filed into the Jacksonville Library’s Anne and David Hicks Auditorium on Tuesday evening, they did not march to the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance.” Instead, rapper Cardi B’s popular beat “I Like It” played.
The graduates in their white-collared shirts and ties and black blazers filed into the rows and sat as their family, friends and supporters waved and cheered.
Moms and dads stood as they entered, some wearing heels, others wearing scrubs at the 5:30 p.m. ceremony.
The young adults, ranging from 18 to 24, were soon to become the largest graduating class from Jacksonville’s Year Up program.
Year Up is a year-long program for people in Jacksonville to work toward an internship and career path in business or technology.
The first six months involve classroom learning partnered with Florida State College at Jacksonville and skill development based on one of the two tracks. The second half of the program places students in an internship with a local corporation, among them Bank of America, JEA and Baptist Health.
They also receive a monthly stipend after signing a contract. Depending on their performance, the stipend can amount to $600 a month.
Morris Applewhite, Year Up executive director, said the program focuses on training unemployed and underemployed youth in business and technology skills. They also learn writing skills, networking skills and professional behavior while in the classroom part of Year Up.
“The great thing about our students is they all have potential,” Applewhite said. “They just don’t have the opportunity due to a lack of access. And it may be because of the ZIP Code that they live in, the ZIP Code that they’re from, or it could be some circumstances, hurdles that have prevented them from being successful at gaining full employment in corporate America.”
Applewhite said Jacksonville had a need for the program partly because its number of “challenging ZIP Codes,” citing the the city’s Northside and Westside. Year Up is designed to give people in these areas an opportunity they may not otherwise have.
About half of Tuesday’s graduates turned their six-month internships into a full-time job by the program’s end. Their average starting wage will amount to about $19 per hour, Applewhite said.
Collectively, the graduates with full-time employment will earn over $1 million in annual salaries over one year.
“That is huge for the communities that they come from,” he said. “That’s going to have an impact certainly on their lives and the lives of those that are in their families and the communities that they come from.”
Applewhite said the program is considering expanding the number of tracks it offers to reach more adults in the city. A health track may be considered in the near future.
During the ceremony, graduates received handfuls of awards for leadership, integrity and academic grit. More than 20 students graduated with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
One graduate shared her story with the audience.
Louise Thomas, born in Miami, was adopted by her cousin after her mother abandoned her. She still isn’t sure who found her, but after media coverage her cousin later adopted and raised her.
Thomas was told she had learning disabilities and behavioral issues while in high school. After graduating, she said she looked for quick jobs, like washing cars and holding department store signs.
“Just when I thought nothing was going my way, my brother texted me and told me about this program called Year Up. It was six months of training, and six months of interning with a Fortune-500 company, and you got paid. I know all of us thought that that was fake,” Thomas said to her colleagues in the crowd.
Her remark was met with laughter. Some shook their heads and agreed the program sounded almost too good to be true for them.
While in the process of applying for Year Up and shortly after she reconnected with her mom, Thomas’s mom died.
Thomas made the decision to move out of Miami where her surroundings only reminded her of her mom.
A spot opened up for her in Jacksonville’s Year Up. Almost all the money she had at the time was spent on gas to make the drive north.
Looking back, Thomas said she is thankful for the strenuous program. She secured a job within Amazon’s Information Technology department after her internship there.
Christopher Johnson, another graduate, said though his story is different from Thomas’s, he and his family have struggled financially.
Johnson is the oldest of five children in his home where both he and his mother have been unemployed. He is the first in his family to pursue a career program like Year Up.
“I broke my glasses and this was during my internship, and I had to glue them back together. I didn’t have enough money to afford glasses,” he said.
The broken glasses did not go unnoticed.
“That Saturday I got my eye exam and received two new pair of glasses all from Year Up,” Johnson said. “They bought it for me.”
Johnson said his group of graduates is a tight-knit one. They clapped for one another and cheered their names as they walked across the stage.
He used one word to describe the program: life-changing.
“This program prepares you for the outside world and all the expectations you’re going to receive,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you don’t have support, and they teach you how to keep pushing without support.”