YouthSpark Star

Terrence Thompson

Skills training helped this Chicago native land an IT job at a large corporation.

Try, Try, Try Again – Terrence’s Year Up and Into the Future

Sitting in his cubicle in slacks and a tie, Terrence Thompson is surrounded by reminders of his success: a Dean’s List letter, a badge from a charity stair climb, a newspaper story he’s featured in, and a bamboo plant signifying good luck. Terrence has a fancy job title working for a renowned corporation and big bright plans for his future. What you don’t see are the struggles he faced to get here.

Terrence was born to a teen mother and spent his early years living with his great grandparents in the rough Englewood neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. He returned home at the age of 3 and throughout his youth dealt with the hardships that so many young black men face growing up in single-parent families. The grim statistics predicted it unlikely that Terrence would finish high school, much less go to college, and find a job.

But Terrence was determined not to let his circumstances define him. He experienced difficulties in high school but stayed focused, graduated, and applied to college. Terrence attended a state school four hours away in southern Illinois but once there, he struggled. Away from home for the first time, surrounded by students with stronger study habits, better preparation and higher expectations, Terrence lost self-confidence.

Year Up helps low-income young adults move from poverty to professional careers in a single year.

“I went down there for the wrong reason – to get away from home,” says Terrence, now 22. “And there were internal things that were keeping me from doing as well as I could – insecurities, lack of motivation, not believing in myself.”

After Terrence was suspended for poor performance, he returned home to help take care of his sick mom, who had been diagnosed with lupus. He enrolled in a community college and helped support his mother and younger brother and sister. He found work at the neighborhood grocery store stocking shelves and cashiering. It was a job, but it was unfulfilling.

That’s when a friend told him about Year Up, a one-year training program that provides low-income, 18- to 24-year-olds with technical and professional training and then sets them up with internships at companies with entry-level jobs. Since taking a technical careers class in 6th grade and seeing how software worked, Terrence had an interest in information technology. The Year Up program promised to not only teach him the tech skills he needed to excel in a job, but also the soft skills he needed to land it. He applied and was accepted.

Terrence Thompson outside his office at Aon’s world headquarters.

Started in Boston in 2000 by Gerald Chertavian, a former investment banker and Big Brother volunteer, Year Up is now in 12 US cities. Each year, more than 2,000 young adults like Terrence go through the free program. Microsoft YouthSpark partners with Year Up and provides funding, software donations, and internships for graduates. The partnership helps bolster the important work the nonprofit is doing across the country to provide young people like Terrence with access to skills, education, and job training, the core goals of the YouthSpark initiative.

Because of the shortage of well-trained tech workers, Year Up places a strong emphasis on digital literacy and building computer science skills. An estimated 75 percent of the Year Up internships are tech-related and almost half of the Year Up graduates go on to get jobs in the field.

"At Year Up, our focus is on helping young adults catapult themselves to the middle class, and a career in technology offers a great starting wage, opportunities for advancement and a stimulating work environment,” says CEO Chertavian. “At the same time, we're ensuring that companies like Microsoft have access to the talent they need in the U.S. to continue innovating and stay globally competitive.”

Microsoft’s support of Year Up is deep and multi-faceted and includes cash contributions, complimentary software, and internships for the program’s graduates.

During the first six months of the program, Terrence learned “hard” technical skills, like the fundamentals of working on an IT help desk and how to use the tools of the Microsoft Office suite. At the same time, instructors helped him develop “soft” skills, everything from how to write a professional e-mails to proper handshakes to how to dress appropriately in the office.

During the second phase, Terrence and the rest of the students worked inside one of more than 250 companies that partner with Year Up. In Chicago, the roster includes employers like Accenture, JP Morgan Chase, Citadel Investment Group, and Aon.

Terrence accepted a six-month internship at Aon, a company he became familiar with during his training. While Terrence commuted to the Year Up office from his home, he emerged each day from the train station and saw Aon’s global headquarters housed in one of the city’s tallest buildings. It was a symbol of a corporate world he knew he wanted to enter but feared would never let him in.

Terrence’s managers at Aon were so impressed that they hired him full-time at the end of his internship. Today, as Strategic Sourcing Specialist, he works in the company’s Global Spend Management Division coordinating meetings with colleagues and executives, and assisting in IT and financial projects. He uses Visio, Excel, and PowerPoint on a regular basis and says these tools help him do his job professionally.

He’s also back in a four-year state university, taking night classes, majoring in business and economics and plans to graduate in the spring of 2016. After that, Terrence hopes to enroll in an MBA program. He is excelling at Aon and recently received a promotion. His aspiration is to become a business leader and executive. For now, he is committed to the job that allows him to support his family and makes him feel valued.

“That was one of the biggest things I struggled with growing up,” he says. “I was written off a lot. Nothing I said really mattered.”

Last fall, Terrence was invited to the Chicago alumni board as vice president. Though he has a full plate, he accepted the invitation. His goal is to show other youth that no matter what they go through, or mistakes they make, there is always a way out, that the past doesn’t have to define the future.

“I’m living proof of how drastically things can change if you just gain the right mindset, utilize the resources and opportunities they put in front of you, and go into everything with the right mentality,” Terrence says.

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