Polanco’s father, a Boston court officer, died suddenly when she was 13. One of her brothers and a close friend were murder victims. Those losses hit her hard, she says. After graduating from Brockton’s Cardinal Spellman High School, Polanco enrolled in Roxbury Community College but left before earning a degree, having worked two jobs to help pay tuition.
“I always kept my balance, but it was tough sometimes,” she says. She heard about Year Up through cousins who were graduates. Accepted into September 2010’s incoming class, she took the investment operations track, despite knowing nothing about finance beyond owning a credit card.
“It was like learning a foreign language,” Polanco recalls with a smile. “Mutual funds. Personal finance. How to rate stocks. Margins, margin calls. But I did learn.”
Quickly, too. Polanco’s supervisor at Bank of New York Mellon, Angeila Hughes, calls her talents and work ethic exceptional.
“Her work qualities are exactly what I’d look for, and that’s taken some people here by surprise,” says Hughes. Most hires have at least a bachelor’s degree, she notes. But with four of her department’s 42 members being Year Up grads, and others scattered throughout the company, the program’s ability to develop talent has been proven.
Polanco, now taking business courses at Cambridge College, says many friends who’ve finished college are now “in major debt” and job hunting, without much luck.
“A lot of companies think you’re worthless without a college degree,” she says. “Teach us those hard and soft skills, though, and everything’s possible.”
Williams’s family left the Dominican Republic for Boston in 2000. He spoke no English. At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, he thought about training to become a carpenter. Meanwhile, he worked for a carpet-cleaning company and drug-store chain. What really interested him, though, was computers.
Friends encouraged him to check out Year Up. Williams was accepted in March 2011 — and quickly found how strict the program’s standards are. Enrollees begin their training with a point total: Any infraction, from chewing gum to showing up late, costs them points. Too many deductions, and you’re out.
“It’s an everyday battle,” Williams says. “But you can tell who’s going to make it and who’s not.” A dozen classmates failed to graduate, he says, while the rest formed a mutual support team to get one another going.
At Consigli, Williams works as a help-desk technician, assisting fellow employees with computer, software, or smartphone problems at one of the firm’s construction sites. Video editing is one aspect of his job he hopes to expand upon.
Frustrated with her curriculum and lack of support from professors, burdened by college debt and admittedly poor at time management, Walter, whose parents are Honduran, dropped out of UMass-Boston after three semesters before applying to Year Up in September 2010. A Latin Academy grad, Walter grew up in Dorchester and heard about the program through a friend.
“I needed a lot of support, a lot of guidance, and they gave it,” says Walter. “But at the end of the day, I made my own choices.”
One career-changing choice involved switching from IT to finance and discovering her nascent math skills. Following an internship at JP Morgan, Walter joined State Street last year and has risen to senior fund accountant. As she writes in a Year Up website profile, she’s grown steadily more comfortable in managing multiple accounts. “Reviewing long term buys and sells to make sure they don’t exceed tolerance? Easy. Creating market to market reports to make sure that exchange rates have been applied. I can do that now.”
As part of Year Up’s Mentor Corps, she also helps younger inner-city kids in need of support, much as she once was.
“We get kids struggling to stay on the right path,” says Walter. “Whether they go to college or not, I want to help them grow.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.