Updated: December 4, 2013 6:33AM
Corzail Nicholson says he rarely saw people dressed up for work in his South Side neighborhood.
He grew up in low-income housing. Many who live there survive on minimum-wage work if they can get it.
When Nicholson started wearing slacks and a tie each day, people noticed.
“I’d get so many compliments,” he says. “They would ask, ‘Are you going to an interview?’ ”
He responded proudly that he was going to school, where he was required to dress professionally.
Nicholson had enrolled in a program that initially seemed too good to be true.
He was in Year Up, a nonprofit established in Boston in 2000 by Harvard Business School graduate Gerald Chertavian to give young adults from low-income backgrounds expertise in computers, programming and business settings.
The Chicago chapter opened in 2010, one of 12 nationally. Alan Anderson, executive director in Chicago and a former administrator for Chicago Public Schools, recalls a tough time recruiting students that first year.
“People thought I was selling snake oil,” he says.
Here’s the part that’s hard to believe: Students get paid for going to school, receiving a stipend of about $150 a week. That’s a lot when you have a household income of about $10,000, common among Year Up students.
Students spend the second half of the yearlong program as interns in Chicago, and during that time the stipend goes up to $225 weekly.
The program partners with dozens of community organizations as well as corporate heavyweights such as Google and Goldman Sachs.
From Day 1, students are required to dress for business. They can browse through a clothes closet if they need donated apparel, an internship coordinator told me.
Word has spread quickly about the program. About 2,000 interest forms were filled out this year, Anderson says. Two classes of 80 students are enrolled yearly, with plans to expand classes to 120.
Year Up isn’t intended to replace college but to provide a path for a livable wage, usually around $15 an hour, to get impoverished young adults on their feet, according to Anderson.
Two alumni, Nicholson and Danielle Mitchell, told me about college dreams derailed by demands to make ends meet before joining Year Up.
Mitchell, 26, went from working as a janitor after leaving DePaul to providing software support for clients around the world as a Year Up intern at an engineering firm.
“Here I was, 24 years old, telling people how to use software,” she says.
She laughs and adds: “I was on a power trip for a little while. It definitely boosted my confidence.”
An administrative assistant for the last year, Mitchell is preparing to move into her own place. She is enjoying her independence. “I have definitely taken a hold of it,” she says.
Not every student succeeds. Anderson says fewer than three in 10 leave in the first semester, which is spent in the classroom. Fewer than one 1 in 10 have left in the internship phase.
Some have too many barriers to overcome, he adds. Whether they log long hours at jobs outside the program or battle emotional scars from dangerous or shaky living situations, it’s too much.
Nicholson, 23, nearly left after the suicide of a close friend. “I felt broken,” he said. With help from counselors he stuck with it to become the most improved student in 2012.
He now provides tech support at a Downtown firm.
“My life,” he says, “has been wonderful ever since.”