Campus & Community

A step up through Year Up

6 min read

Urban youths, now interns, apprentice in new fields at Harvard

Muhammed Konneh, a refugee from Sierra Leone, came to the United States in 2005 when he was just 16. “War brought me to America,” Konneh said. “I came to the U.S. in the hopes of a better life and a good education.”

Fast forward to now, and Konneh is amid a six-month internship at Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT) with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), thanks to the University’s involvement in the Year Up Boston program. A one-year training and education program that provides urban youth in Greater Boston with hands-on skill development and internship opportunities, Year Up works to close the opportunity divide by providing urban young adults with the skills and support to reach their professional potential.

In Year Up, high school graduates and GED recipients ages 18 to 24 years old are provided with six months of training in professional skills and education, followed by six-month internships at one of Year Up Boston’s 50 corporate partners, including Harvard. This year, Konneh was among eight interns placed at the University, including four with HUIT, one with the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and three at the Harvard Business School IT Group. Since the University’s affiliation began in 2003, 39 interns have been placed at Harvard, with 19 earning offers of employment at the end of their internships.

Now three months into his internship, Konneh said that his time at the University has been a welcome change from the chaos and instability of his childhood.

“I applied to Year Up because I was tired of being stuck — having no job, no money, and nothing to do with my life,” Konneh said. “I was surprised at how nice and supportive the staff members at Harvard have been. Harvard is one of the best universities in the world, and I am learning a lot. It’s a great opportunity to have on my resume, which will help me greatly in looking for a job once my internship ends.”

“Bringing together diverse perspectives is the most effective means for stimulating creativity and knowledge production,” said FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “A commitment to cultivating the diversity of our faculty, staff, and students is therefore a natural extension of Harvard’s commitment to providing an intellectual environment that encourages innovation. To develop a pipeline of diverse talent, programs like Year Up are invaluable. They have a stellar track record for identifying and training promising young people, who then arrive at Harvard ready to contribute and thrive in this environment. It is a partnership that benefits both the interns and the University.”

“We recognize that our FAS student and faculty constituencies are diverse populations on a number of dimensions,” said Christine Ciotti, FAS associate dean for human resources. “It is essential that we too reflect this rich diversity within the FAS staff population that supports them. Year Up is an excellent program that gives FAS access to talent pipelines we might not otherwise have. Our ability to both build and nurture a diverse FAS community for students, faculty, and staff is what will keep FAS strong and innovative.”

At an Oct. 4 FAS Year Up Partnership Breakfast, Casey Recupero ’99, executive director of Year Up Boston and a member of the group’s national leadership team, pointed out that the current difficult economic climate is challenging not only for job seekers, but also for employers.

“Employers are suffering from an opportunity divide, and struggling to find the right people for the right jobs,” Recupero said. “In the past 10 years, 90 percent of our intern supervisors said that their interns met or exceeded their expectations. At the end of their internship, 85 percent of our interns are either placed in a position with an average income of $30,000 — often tripling their household income — or they enroll in college full time. Our internship program is a great way to meet the needs of local employers, and at the end you have a group of people who are ready to step into full-time employment with that organization.”

At the breakfast, Jared Thomas, IT supervisor with HUIT who oversees Konneh, said that working with the interns was mutually beneficial. “When we first began our partnership with Year Up and collaborated with our first set of interns, we were not sure what to expect,” Thomas said. “But we quickly came to understand how prepared the interns were and how we could make their experience one of tremendous growth and value, in addition to providing opportunities for these young people to change their own lives.

“I am deeply impressed by the energy, motivation, and skill they bring to their work site every day, despite the immense challenges that they have experienced within their own lives. We personally have hired Year Up interns postgraduation, and are excited about the opportunity to train motivated employees who are very successful at their jobs,” he added.

Another of Thomas’ interns is Pedro Bernabel of Dorchester, who cites his family as his motivation for joining Year Up. “I have two kids: a 4-year-old daughter, Jazlyn Bernabel, and a 1-year-old son, Pedro Bernabel Jr. I had a few run-ins with the law that changed my life, and I lost visitation of my daughter. It’s been two years, 11 months, and 24 days since I’ve seen her,” Bernabel said. “Year Up was my last chance to really get things together for myself and my kids.”

When Bernabel first heard of his assignment at Harvard, he had some concerns. “I was a little scared,” he said. “Coming from the area I did, none of us ever thought of going to school at Harvard or even working there. I thought I wouldn’t fit in. But staff members and students have been so nice and welcoming. I never went to college, so just to be in this atmosphere with so many people has been awesome.”

Fellow intern Emmanuel Casseus, student contact manager at HUIT, agreed. “I was amazed that Harvard offered such assistance in helping students from all over the city of Boston in getting a good experience for their future career, regardless of their backgrounds in school or the neighborhood they came from,” Casseus said. “Working at Harvard doesn’t mean you have to be ‘book smart.’ You must have strong professional skills, good communication skills, and great customer service to satisfy the clients.”

Initially, Bernabel said, he had no desire to continue his education. “I felt like working was more important. But now I really want to go to college and obtain a bachelor’s degree. I understand it will be difficult, but Year Up has really made me understand that with a degree my life can be so much easier, and I feel that my going to school will be a great model for my kids to follow. My life goals went from just having money and a house to having a degree and a whole list of new achievements for me to go after.”

For more information, visit the Year Up website.