- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

BALTIMORE (AP) - Rodney Harris was working as a security guard in an office building when he met the one person who would put him on the path to change his life.

Harris, now 23, tried to go to college after high school but struggled with loans. He left school and went to work as a guard, where he watched employees going to and from work every day. One employee, an intern at CareFirst, noticed Harris and reached out.

“One day he just stopped by, asked if I was in school, and told me about program, and it sounded intriguing,” Harris said. “I started to look it up, and I saw videos of how it was helping a lot of students in one year. So I figured it was something I should do.”

The program that the intern brought to Harris is an organization called Year Up, an intensive one-year training corps where young city residents ages 18-24 come together in a class of 40 students; they take college classes full-time for six months, then take on a full-time, six-month internship. Everything from classes to additional resources like business attire and transportation are provided, at no cost to the students.

“We teach IT, cybersecurity and general business,” said Roland Selby, executive director of Year Up Baltimore, “along with soft skills like office etiquette, email etiquette, and conflict resolution.”

Students in Year Up have either their high school diploma or GED. Some have taken college classes, most have not. They might be employed, have children, live on their own or with parents or guardians.

“We don’t want to assume where anyone is coming from,” Selby said. “Our students are representative of the community - they’re not charity cases or hard luck stories. They have grit, determination, vision. They want to do something more.”

“Something more” was exactly what Keeya Green, 20, was looking for when she joined Year Up.

“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing,” Green said. She took a year and half after she graduated high school to baby-sit when she heard about Year Up from her cousin, who graduated from the Arlington chapter, and her aunt, a guidance counselor.

For Green, who struggled with social anxiety, the program’s hands-on staff took some getting used to.

“At first I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep to myself,’ but everyone was so inviting,” Green said.

Other students struggle with the rigorous class schedule and the strict contract the program requires.

“I have to wake up at 6 a.m. every day, Monday through Friday,” said Ike Olumese, another student in the program. “One of the biggest struggles is staying awake for a long period of time doing lots of different things until 5 p.m.”

Students like Olumese and Green take classes for the initial six months every day at Baltimore City Community College to prepare them for entry-level jobs in areas of technology and cybersecurity. Students also have to attend training and events to hone their professional skills, such as mock interviews, public speaking, networking and etiquette workshops, and guest speakers.

“They don’t only build your hard skills, but also who you are as a person,” Green said. “I’m so much more confident in myself, how I speak.”

A contract signed at the beginning of the program ensures that students will stick to the rules of the program. Every week, students are evaluated during “Feedback Fridays,” where small groups get together to talk with staff members or “coaches” who give advice, while students discuss their week and receive feedback from their peers.

“They give us advice and we become better,” said Olumese, who sees the staff as an invaluable support system who “make it their business” for the students to be successful. Students get points every week, and those points are taken away for infractions such as being late, showing up out of dress code (students are required to wear business professional attire every day), not turning in assignments or even having a bad attitude. If the bad behavior continues, students could become part of the “spotlight program,” where students get more frequent one-on-one meetings with staff and elevated support. The program also puts a spotlight on students who go above and beyond and reward them by taking them out to lunch.

“Behavior is critical,” Selby said, “We like to say ‘companies will hire for skill, but fire for behavior.’”

Year Up students get to put their training to the test for the second half of the program, when they are placed as interns at companies such as Johns Hopkins, T. Rowe Price, Morgan Stanley, Constellation Energy and more in the D.C.- Maryland-Virginia area. For young adults who may have started the program not knowing how to send a professional email, many feel prepared to join the professional world.

“I feel ready,” said Green, who is waiting to find out where she’ll start interning in July. “They’ve given you all the skills to prepare and I know I can do a good job.”

One hundred percent of Year Up Baltimore’s most recent graduating class went on to work full time in their field or went on to continue their education. While the program doesn’t provide students with a degree, it does give some networking certifications and sets students up for entry-level jobs.

“Having that (internship) experience really opened up a lot of opportunities and doors for me,” said Harris, who took his Year Up internship at Carefirst but didn’t get hired full-time by the company. “I never was really too much of a good communicator, I had never had that experience in corporate environment.”

Year Up officials hope to double the number of students in the program to 160 in 2017. The program recently moved into a new office at Baltimore City Community College with 10,000 square feet. New staff members have been hired as well, in order to continue supporting the increase in students and ramp up marketing of the organization.

“We’re moving to the next level of our trajectory - we’re working on an advisory board, a development team to raise money,” Selby said. “We’re primarily self-funded - only recently are we starting to develop fundraising need” for additional programs and certifications.

“Year Up has a phenomenal program with proven outcomes, but we are the best-kept secret,” Selby said. “I’ll feel like we’ve done our job when we have a waitlist without recruiting. We don’t want to be a fallback - we want to be one of the top options.”

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.thedailyrecord.com

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