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January 24, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

Taking a Hand Up with Year Up…by Maria Caruso

Maria Caruso_photoMy first four months with VISTA taught me to measure my growth in dog years and that my students weren’t the only ones who needed a hand up from Year Up. Since my first AmeriCorps term involved living in a one-room cabin and tutoring youth at a residential psychiatric facility, I wasn’t expecting as much of a challenge when I took an office position with Year Up. However, adjusting to corporate America proved as much of a culture shock as living in the woods.
Year Up is an intense one-year program for low-income, urban youth. Students take 21-weeks of college and career preparatory courses that qualify them to earn a six-month Information Technology internship with companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Bank of America. New students and staff learn quickly to keep pace with Year Up. The first lesson I mastered with our newest students was dressing the part while on a tight budget. It was amazing how our students’ wardrobes transformed from orientation to the start of class. Their resourcefulness in managing to dress like future CEOs on a small Year Up stipend encouraged me that I could do it on a VISTA stipend too.

Student Dress Transformation
Success at Year Up also depends on learning to decipher corporate lingo. For instance, when a colleague says, “I have an ask,” I’ve succeeded in suppressing my impulse to giggle at the phrasing and recognize someone is formally asking to make a request of the group. While there are a few corporate phrases I’d love to hear less, learning this new language helped me navigate my new environment. We also train our students that knowing corporate jargon supports their development of a corporate persona.
The final hurdle at Year Up is acclimating to its whirlwind pace, but don’t take my word for it, visit us on Facebook to see what we’ve been up to. When I arrived at my site, I had two weeks to research Information Technology certification exams, find online courses, and launch a study program. As a former English major, my knowledge of the IT field expanded as far as Best Buy’s Geek Squad. Similar to our students who often enter Year Up with a basic comprehension of IT, I swiftly engrossed myself in it. The students in my courses are now testing, and I’m excited to share that the number of students who earned certifications this year matches the number that gained certifications since Year Up Atlanta opened in 2009!
After my first few months, a colleague said Year Up time is like dog years and asked how many years I’d been there, and I said, “Three.” I’m exaggerating, but employees and students do grow up fast at Year Up. In four months, I’ve re-framed my perception of who our urban youth are and what they can do and implemented programs to support them. I look forward to finding volunteers to work alongside next year’s VISTA to sustain the programs I helped take root.

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