In the United States today, nearly five million Americans haven’t progressed professionally beyond high school. That leaves five million students at an immediate disadvantage when entering the job market. The rise of COVID-19 has only worsened this issue, leaving more students behind with no other choice than to drop out to sustain their livelihoods.

For the past 20 years, Year Up, a national nonprofit that serves the D.C. region, has been dedicated to closing this opportunity divide by ensuring that young adults gain the skills, experiences, and support to access professional careers and higher education. Their ultimate mission is to empower and unlock each student’s potential.

Students from all demographics and ages can apply for a full year of specialized learning and a six-month corporate internship at a Fortune 1000 company. From information technology to software development, Year Up equips students with the technical skills, as well as professional ones. It’s a formula that works: 90% of Year Up graduates continue their education or are hired from corporate partners. By providing these students with the professional and technical skills, Year Up has become a vital source of untapped and bright, young talent.

But with the onset of COVID-19, Year Up uncovered new ways to serve their students. Aside from shifting their curriculums to virtual learning, Year Up needed to ensure that their beneficiaries would have access to online learning and a sustainable work environment throughout the pandemic to continue their education.

Whitley Denson, Program Director at Year Up, has been leading the charge in pivoting in truly innovative ways. Denson was already developing a hybrid model of in-class and virtual learning before the pandemic hit. The Alternative Direct Service team is a new and innovative pilot program that is being tested in the Philadelphia and South Florida sites. Instead of dedicating a year to Year Up, this program is a seven-month model with three months of learning and development and four months of work immersion. Additionally, her team introduced individual lab and study time for each student based on their curriculum and progress.

Coordinating online internships with their corporate partners was another challenge. Hector Falcon, a recent graduate, started his internship at Capital One’s headquarters in Northern Virginia, entirely online. He’s proven to be a true leader and a Year Up success story example. “Hector has that mindset and drive to succeed. He was able to motivate others and was a leader from start to finish within our community. A lot of his peers leaned on him,” shares Denson.

Falcon owes his interest in technology to his father. “My dad’s an electrical engineer, so we always made robots growing up. I just really liked visiting my dad at work, all of it,” says Falcon. Even though he worked multiple part-time jobs on top of Year Up’s intensive program, his dedication and focus earned him prestigious awards at Year Up: Professional of the Week and the Empowered Award. “Receiving these awards made me realize that people notice me, and they’re rewarding me for it. That feeling is unmatched,” says Falcon. Year Up and the staff helped Falcon find his voice and confidence.

In addition to responding to COVID-19, Year Up has ramped up its efforts in its learning community. Thanks to its vast alumni network, Year Up has expanded due to word of mouth. “This idea of community is woven into the tapestry of Year Up. We tell our interns that they’re not doing this just for themselves…There are ten other folks coming after you. The big thing I wish people knew about Year Up is that it’s not just workforce development – it’s also personal development,” says Denson.

When the racial justice movement gained the nation’s immediate attention, Denson and her group of interns quickly mobilized and rallied on the front lines of protests. “It’s not new to us to band together, because that’s what we’ve always done,” says Denson. She believes that her students and staff are the definition of resilience. “We’re supporting students, while also navigating our own lives. We’re carrying the weight of failing and succeeding, over and over again.”

Capital One is proud to support Year Up and their dedication to closing the Opportunity Divide. In addition to these efforts, Capital One has also launched a multi-year commitment to advance socioeconomic mobility through the Capital One Impact Initiative. Launched in October, the Capital One Impact Initiative seeks to create a world where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper through advocating for an inclusive society, building thriving communities and creating financial tools that enrich lives.

To learn more about Year Up DC visit

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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