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Students at the Year Up Puget Sound office in Seattle prepare for a game of IT Jeopardy.

Year Up is a scam.

That’s what Selemun Welderfael first thought when he read about a new program in Seattle that offered computer education, internships at Fortune 500 companies, and even money to at-risk young adults with the potential to land careers in technology.

yearupEven more unbelievable: Not a single dime of tuition was required.

“It seemed cheesy and fake,” he said. “Who pays students to learn about IT?”

The Year Up flyer that Welderfael was reading detailed a 12-month bootcamp designed to educate and guide the participants to a professional career. Six months of college-level classes, six months interning at a local company, and a $10,000 stipend — all for free. It seemed too good to be true.

But in fact, it was 100 percent real. Just listen to Welderfael now, 10 months after his July 2013 Year Up graduation.

“I wouldn’t be here without Year Up,” he says.

Welderfael, who now works as an IT analyst at Boeing, is just one of many success stories to come out of the non-profit Year Up Puget Sound program.

The organization opened its first office 14 years ago in Boston after former Wall Street banker Gerald Chertavian left the corporate world to start work as a social entrepreneur.

“A majority of the young adults growing up in isolated poverty in our inner cities want opportunity, want to be challenged, want to be held to high expectations, and are motivated to actually get a good job,” Chertavian said in a recent 60 Minutes feature on Year Up. “They haven’t had any exposure as to, how do you that?”

In March 2011, Year Up launched a Puget Sound program in downtown Seattle, marking the eighth expansion outside of Boston. Former Amazon manager Lisa Chin became the founding executive director and made it her mission to help close the opportunity divide.

Fast forward to today, and Year Up Puget Sound now has nearly 200 alumni, many of whom are now working at some of Seattle’s top companies. Each class has progressively posted better and better retention rates. In fact, in the two most recent graduating classes, almost every student was hired by a Year Up local corporate partner like Zillow, Google or Dreambox.

“We are all about getting young adults a jumpstart in their lives and careers,” Chin says. “This is not just a place to rest. They learn a ton here.”

The Year Up Effect

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Selemun Welderfael and Manualii Misa graduated from Year Up in July. Welderfael works at Boeing; Misa works at Nordstrom. Photo by Piper Hanson.

After two failed tries with college education, it seemed the only thing Welderfael had learned was how not to graduate.

Welderfael, who was born in Sudan and moved to Seattle when he was 2, received a diploma from Garfield High School eight years ago and enrolled at Eastern Washington University, becoming the first in his family to attend college. But instead of studying, he spent the next three years screwing around and not focusing on school work.

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Welderfael speaks at the July 2013 Year Up graduation. Photo by Piper Hanson.

So Welderfael came home and tried again at ITT Technical Institute — after all, he always liked working with computers. Yet just as he was about to complete his degree, a mix-up with paperwork after one summer vacation prevented Welderfael from actually graduating.

“At that point I just said, ‘Screw it,’ ” he recalled. “School was not for me.”

Things got worse from there, as Welderfael began hanging out with the wrong crowd on the streets.

“I feel like I failed so many things, it was the only option,” he said. “It led me down a horrible path.”

Then came that Year Up flyer. One month later, Welderfael found himself sitting amongst a group of 80 other at-risk youth, all wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

The first two weeks inside the Year Up building in Belltown consisted of team activities. The new students would break off into groups and figure out how to complete tasks like building the tallest skyscraper with only marshmallows and wooden sticks.

This process seemed like a game, and nothing more, to many. But those initial experiences laid a certain groundwork.

“Some of us thought it was stupid at the time, but it created teams. It created relationships,” Welderfael said.

Manualii Misa, a fellow graduate, shared the same sentiment.

“The sense of a community we built as a cohort was amazing,” she said. “We all grew to encourage, and hold each other accountable.”

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Students talk about recent interactions in a Year Up business communication class.

Accountability is one of six core values at Year Up. Not only are students expected to earn 27 college credits with their intensive IT and business communications classes, but they also sign a behavioral contract on Day 1 outlining a bevy of requirements designed to teach skills that prepare them for the real world: Arrive on time everyday; send follow-up emails to guest speakers; dress appropriately.

Every week, students start with 200 points. For each infraction they make, points are taken away — and perhaps more importantly, that means money detracted from the weekly stipend.

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Year Up students earn college credit in IT areas.

“This trains behavior very quickly,” said Year Up Development Manager Janice Javier.

Students spend six months going to class five days a week, and then are placed into an internship for another six months. Welderfael went on to intern at Perkins Coie, a major law firm in downtown Seattle, where he helped manage the company’s network security. Misa, meanwhile, landed an internship at Nordstrom’s headquarters.

Both Welderfael and Misa, who now works at Nordstrom as an IT support analyst, spoke at the Year Up graduation last July.

“I gained many skills in technology, networking, professionalism — and I learned how to achieve my goals,” Welderfael said in his speech. “Even better, I helped build a community within this movement with some of the most passionate, intelligent young adults I know.”

Misa said at graduation, “We used to see the corporate world as a foreign country, but once we made that human-to-human connection, we got the opportunity to understand that we can do it. We just needed the opportunity and resources to show us how to get there.”

“It’s a triple win”

There’s no doubt that Year Up students gain invaluable experience while interning at and potentially working for Seattle-based companies like Microsoft and F5 Networks. But what about the employers themselves? Why don’t they just pick applicants that have already-stellar resumes who are graduating from the nation’s top universities?

Seattle Children's Hospital Chief Information Officer Wes Wright.
Seattle Children’s Hospital Chief Information Officer Wes Wright.

Wes Wright answers that question with ease. As chief information officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital — a founding partner of Year Up Puget Sound — Wright has seen more than 30 interns come through the hospital doors to help out with IT-related tasks.

Out of all the young adults he’s worked with — some of which have been hired — Wright said he hasn’t had one poor performing intern. He credits that to the six months of schooling and preparation the students experience before arriving at Seattle Children’s.

“Just to get through the didactic portion of the Year Up, they really had to show commitment, discipline and enthusiasm for the career field and for improving themselves,” Wright said. “There was really never any kind of worry in my head that I would get a bad apple.”

But one concern Wright had was the amount of time it would take to train the interns on telemedicine equipment — though that worry quickly went away.

“Turns out they just went through six months of intensive training — they were in learn mode,” he said. “It didn’t take very much to get them spun up on how we worked.”

seattlechildrenWright, a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, went as far as comparing Year Up’s structure to what he saw in the military.

“The camaraderie amongst the Year Up folks and the way they hold each other accountable and responsible, knowing that their peers are a reflection of them and the program — that reminds me a lot of how we thought of ourselves when I was a young airman,” Wright explained.

Having Year Up funnel well-trained and well-behaved students over to companies also helps these organizations reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to hire the right intern. In exchange, they pay Year Up $23,920 per intern — this money makes up no less than 60 percent of Year Up’s operating budget (the other 40 percent comes from private philanthropy).

Year Up’s mission to have students find internships is not only a moral goal, but a financially sustainable one.

“If our retention rates are higher, we’re going to send more students to internships and we’ll make more money,” Chin said. “If we lose more students, we’ll make less money.”

The relationship between Year Up, its students and the corporate partners is certainly unique — and one that appears to be beneficial for everyone involved.

“We win, our patients and families and providers win because of the professionalism of the Year Up folks, and the Year Up students themselves win,” Wright said. “It’s a triple win.”

“Nothing really compares to Year Up”

This map shows where every Year Up Puget Sound student and graduate hail from.
This map shows where every Year Up Puget Sound student and graduate hail from.

As we munch on sandwiches inside a conference room at the Year Up offices, seven students from the most recent class are talking about their experiences at the program thus far. With every question asked, it becomes more and more apparent how meaningful Year Up is to these young adults.

One phrase is continuously repeated: “I’ve learned a lot about myself.”

53 students graduated from Year Up Puget Sound in January.
53 students graduated from Year Up Puget Sound in January. Almost every single one landed a job shortly thereafter. Photo by Piper Hanson.

“I’m finding my strengths and weaknesses,” said Dana Williamson, who was previously in the landscaping business before coming to Year Up. “I’ve grown more in past four months than I have in the past three years.”

All of the students graduated from high school, but since then, landing a job and gaining the right skills has been a struggle for most. Year Up is perfect for these 18-to-24 year olds that may not have been given the chance to really succeed or been in the right environment.

“The people at Year Up care about what you’re doing with your life,” said Alexis Patton, a former community college student who is also raising a baby daughter. “The program has a lot of pressure, but it’s so worth it. It builds character and shows you a lot about yourself and how determined you are to do the right thing.”

The vibe in the Year Up Puget Sound offices is full of positive energy. It’s oozing from the students who have committed to one year of improvement, both academically and professionally, and realize what opportunities now lie ahead. It’s radiated from the teachers, many of whom have left the traditional school system for something more engaging and more meaningful. And it’s coming from people like Chin and Javier, employees of Year Up who want nothing more than these students to reach their potential.

This is exactly what Chertavian had in mind when he opened the first Year Up office 14 years ago.

“Nothing really compares to Year Up,” said Welderfael. “In regular school, you’re not forced to grow as a person. That’s the beautiful thing about Year Up — if you complete the program, you grow as a human being. You learn things about yourself. You’re challenged. And if you mess up, there’s someone there to say, ‘It’s OK. Now get your butt up and get this done.'”

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