Impact Series

Low-income college students get tuition-free coaching for tech careers because of Seattle-area partnership

In October, officials and Year Up participants celebrated a new partnership between the nonprofit and Seattle Central and South Seattle colleges. An event held at Seattle’s Pacific Tower included, from left to right, front row: Fred Krug, Year Up Puget Sound executive director; Heaven Hamilton, Year Up graduate; Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan; Shouan Pan, Seattle Colleges Chancellor; and South Seattle College President Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap. In the back row: Year Up board chair John Stanton; Seattle Central College President Sheila Edwards Lange (partly hidden); and Year Up President Cyril Turner. (Year Up Photo)

It takes Mavrick Garcia 90 minutes by bus each morning to get from his grandparents’ house in Renton to Seattle Central College where he’s enrolled in an intensive tech-career training program called Year Up. The commute is another 90 minutes to get home at the end of the day. It’s a grind, but Garcia said it’s worth it.

“I had no idea where I wanted to go in my life,” Garcia said. He took community college classes while in high school and earned an associate’s degree in film studies, but realized that making movies is expensive. He needed a plan B.

A friend of his aunt’s had completed the Year Up program, a national initiative that helps lower-income students take technology courses tuition-free and connects them with internships. After finishing the training, the acquaintance landed a job at the online real estate company Zillow.

“It was a perfect opportunity for me,” said Garcia, “because I’m broke and between 18-24 [years old]” — which are the required ages for participation.

Year Up does outreach with organizations including community and job-training groups to find interested students. But word of mouth is a powerful recruiting tool.

Mavrick Garcia, 19, is a Year Up participant at Seattle Central College. (Photo courtesy of Mavrick Garcia)

“When young people in the community see [Year Up] alumni working in spaces they didn’t expect to see them in, they start asking,” said Fred Krug, executive director of Year Up Puget Sound.

Garcia, 19, just finished his first quarter of the program, where he’s focused on software development and testing. Garcia loves the rush of solving problems in coding and was interested to understand the scope of jobs available in technology. He’ll take another quarter of classes, then start a six-month internship with a local tech company in the spring.

Year Up launched in Boston in 2000, and gradually began expanding nationally, reaching the Puget Sound area in 2011. The nonprofit organization partnered with Bellevue College for many years, and in spring of 2019 began a partnership with Seattle Colleges, including Seattle Central and South Seattle colleges. Seattle Central has seen its first batch of students complete their instruction, and started a new cohort that includes Garcia.

“They are doing very, very well,” said Chris Sullivan, Seattle Central College’s executive dean for workforce education.

The program works like this:

  • Year Up accepts low- or moderate-income students with high school diplomas or GEDs.
  • Students apply for federal student aid to pay their tuition, and Year Up pays costs not covered by grants, as well as helping students find additional resources. (A quarter of tuition at Seattle Colleges, including books and fees, costs about $2,000.)
  • In the Puget Sound area, students take two quarters of classes taught primarily by college instructors, and receive additional support from Year Up staff, including career skill development and social services.
  • Participants receive $200 monthly stipends while taking courses, and $800 stipends during their internship.

Ricardo “Dallas” Pena has also finished his first quarter of classes through Year Up. The 21-year-old student is pursuing training in app development, and can imagine himself designing video games or in web development. He was working in security before enrolling.

Ricardo “Dallas” Pena, 21, is getting training for a technology career with the nonprofit Year Up. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Pena)

“I’m not going to lie,” Pena said. “Before this program I was a pretty lazy person.”

His time with Year Up has already made him a better person, he said, taking more initiative and responsibility for his actions.

Learning how to code, “was something completely new to me,” said Pena, who lives in Auburn and commutes to Seattle Central by light rail. He likes the collegiality of his fellow students. When he struggled with a problem, they jumped in to help.

“I appreciate they were teaching me how to do it, without doing it for me,” Pena said.

Garcia’s only complaint with the program is that some of the instructors haven’t been a strong as he’d like. In those cases, the students have likewise rallied to aid each other.

“It made us focus on helping each other out,” he said. “We’re all focused on getting a good career.”

For the internships and other support, Year Up partners with approximately 30 Puget Sound area companies including Amazon, Expeditors, Smartsheet, Salesforce, Microsoft, and Expedia.

Year Up tracks the performance of their students in the region:

  • 90 percent of graduates have jobs or enroll in additional education programs within four months of finishing Year Up.
  • The annual starting salary for employed Puget Sound graduates is $47,000 on average.
  • Slightly less than half of the students are hired by the companies where they did their internship.
  • More than 340 students participated in the program in 2019.

The goal for spring is to enroll 180 new students at Seattle-area locations. Year Up is leaving Bellevue College in March; the partnership is ending because the location was difficult for students to reach, said Krug.

Sullivan is eager to expand the program at Seattle Central. The school previously partnered with a federally-funded, tech training program called LaunchCode that failed to place students in promised apprenticeships, according to the Seattle Times. After 13 months, LaunchCode ended its program at Seattle Central in May 2018.

A Seattle event in October celebrating a new Year Up partnership with Seattle Central and South Seattle colleges. Guests included (from left to right): Stephanie Gardner (second from left), former Year Up outreach director; Chelsia Berry, Seattle Central associate dean for STEM-B; Heaven Hamilton, Year Up graduate; Seattle Central President Sheila Edwards Lange; and Karina Berry, Year Up graduate. (Year Up Photo)

“With Year Up already having the name and presence and reputation, they already have the industry partners at hand,” Sullivan said.

The tech-training program Apprenti is also successfully placing workers from underrepresented populations into the tech sector. That initiative launched in 2016. Another similar Seattle-area organization is Ada Developers Academy.

One of the benefits of the Year Up program is the “wraparound” support that staff provide participants. That can include something as basic as helping the students get passes for covering their transit costs or connecting them to food banks to stretch their dollars. It’s financially challenging for some of the students to get by on the slim Year Up stipends, but they’re focused on the endgame.

“I knew it was going to be tough paying for food and rent,” Pena said, “but the outcome is going to outweigh what I have to go through this year.”

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