Jonathan Ruiz tells us how Year Up "saved his life" and got him off the streets of Boston

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 12, 2016
He went from hanging out with gangs, doing drugs and working in a supermarket, to a having a career in tech with Pegasystems. All thanks to Year Up.

Last week we wrote up an interview with Year Up founder and CEO Gerald Chertavian, who explained how his company is working hard to provide companies in America with the digital skills they so desperately need, by training up young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds.

He’s put thousands of 18-24 year olds through the programme, which consists of six months training and then six months apprenticeship at a company (e.g. Facebook, Google, American Express). The average salary of a student starting the programme is $5,000 a year. Upon leaving it’s $38,000 a year.

Chertavian’s argument is that right now there are six million young adults that are ‘disconnected’ from stable career pathways (more often than not because of their socio-economic background and the colour of their skin), and there are 12 million jobs that will require post-secondary education in America that will go unqualified in the next decade.

Year Up is helping to fill that gap.

However, to really give you an idea of the impact this is having on people’s lives, I wanted to share the story of Jonathan Ruiz, who joined the Year Up programme about three years ago and is now working at Pegasystems.

Sitting down with Ruiz was incredibly humbling and really drove home the importance of what this company is doing.

Ruiz began by explaining his background, where he grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, to the parents of Columbian immigrants. His story was typical to a lot of other kids growing up in his neighbourhood. Ruiz said:

I grew up in the Boston South End area. At the time, growing up, it was a really rough neighbourhood. A lot of drug activity, gang violence. At a young age my mother worked three jobs, I probably only saw her once in the afternoon. My father was there until about age five or six, but after that there wasn’t much of a father figure around. It was mostly just my mother raising me.

Ruiz explained that although his early years at school had been good, where he was an A/B student up until about the seventh grade, after a change in the law meant that all kids had to be taught just in English (not English and Spanish), an influx of new students arrived that caused some problems. He explained:

A new group of friends came in. So school became a little bit tougher. It was much, much tougher to go into school just because I didn’t want to go, the kids became meaner. A bully came in.

And this was the start of what Ruiz described as “taking a different path”, where school dropped down his list of priorities and he started looking to the fellow kids in his neighbourhood for guidance. He said:

I started hanging out with the local neighbourhood kids, which was more of a gang environment. So between the 7th to 9th grade I wasn't going to school as much as I wanted to. Around that age I was more interested in that aspect of hanging out with friends, skipping school. My mother was working so she didn’t notice. I was so focused on that lifestyle because it intrigued me.

That continued into high school. I was skipping school, I lost my interest in school completely. I had to drop out of school. I got no qualifications, no high school diploma. I started working in a restaurant, convenience stores, which didn’t pay good, but I felt like I was supporting my mother at that time. I needed an income and I feel like school wasn’t doing that at all.

A common experience

So between the ages of 17 and 23 Ruiz spent his time working low paid jobs, taking drugs and drinking. Which was typical of people his age in the area. He said:

It was just the thing to do. Everyone in my neighbourhood had similar backgrounds, no father figure, single mother, always working. That was what we were used to at the time.

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Trainees of Year Up

However, Ruiz said that he knew that education would be his “escape”, as he had seen some friends that had gone on to trade schools, or had become nurses. He said he saw them and felt like if he could do the same he could get out.

Then one day, which he describes as the defining event that led to the change in his circumstance, Ruiz saw a friend that had already gone through the Year Up programme. Ruiz explained:

I remember one time I was working at the supermarket. I was working 60 hours a week, my salary was probably $22,000 a year. And that’s working 60 hours a week. And again, I wanted to go to school, but I couldn’t afford it and there was no time for it.

But I saw a friend that I’d known a while ago from high school. And I saw that he was dressed from head to toe, had a suit and tie, and in our environment you don’t see that at all. I asked him what he was doing and said he was working in the nearby hospital in the IT department. He explained that he’s comfortable, he’s getting paid well.

I was like ‘hey, how did you get that?’. He’s got a similar background to me. It’s challenging going into interviews with tattoos and they go in there and they judge you by your appearance.

He explained that he went to this programme called Year Up. So I went online - at the time my computer skills was searching and social networks - basic stuff. So I decided to shoot them an email, they had me go in for the interview and I decided to take the IT path. It changed my life. Honestly from that point on.

Ruiz went through the application process, which involves going through a couple of rigorous interviews and group sessions with other potential trainees. He said that Year Up was very keen to hear his ‘story’, where he had to be as honest as possible. Ruiz got the call that he was selected a couple of months later.

On receiving the news, he was elated. Ruiz said:

I was so, so happy. I felt great.

Given an opportunity

So Ruiz joined the Year Up programme, which gives you six months training, teaching you both soft and technical skills. Year Up does provide students with a basic wage to support them during the training period, but Ruiz chose to work during that time too to further supplement his income. Following the six months training he found out that he had been placed with Pega for an internship. He said:

I earned my internship with Pegasystems. That’s what they say, that you ‘earn’ the internship. And you really do because you work so hard through the learn and development phase through that first six months. And when the date came, we have a ceremony when everyone learns their internship. I received the paper and it said ‘Pegasystems. I had never heard of them. But either way I was so excited. I immediately researched the internship, I didn’t know what they did but I was ready!

But Ruiz said that his first day at Pega was very nerve wracking, given that it wasn’t an environment that he’d ever worked in before. He explained:

You go into this prestigious building. You see so many people, so many people that you’re not used to in your environment. It was definitely nerve wracking. It was great that they don’t see you as this kid from the low income housing projects, they see you as an equal. They see us as having equal talent to them.

However, despite initial nerves, Ruiz has now been with Pega for two and a half years, having been offered a job after the six month internship. He’s working in the IT department as a user support technician. He said:

The concern is that sometimes you’re not hired into the internship, but I worked very hard and they noticed that. They appreciated my hard work and said I do great work. Pega definitely gave me that opportunity.

It’s been incredible, it changed my life.

Take a risk

Ruiz’s story is incredible. And it’s one that has been made possible by the people at Year Up, which have

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supported and trained thousands of young adults in similar situations. It’s a reminder that just because somebody hasn’t had the best start in life or all the training they need by the time they’re in their twenties, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have value. They just need an opportunity.

As Year Up CEO Gerald Chertavian said in our interview, choose competency over pedigree.

And as for Ruiz, what does he think of the Year Up programme?

If it wasn’t for Year Up…I thought I was going to be a supermarket manager, but that’s definitely not reliable. I honestly don’t know where I would be, it’s tough. I see a lot of my peers went down a wrong path, most of them are in jail, a few passed away unfortunately. And they are just struggling to find a decent paid job, to make a living and get some housing.

Some people may think they don’t need Year Up in their lives, but I would just tell them to take a risk. I took a risk because I didn’t know what I was getting into. Embrace that opportunity and take that risk. I’m more financially stable, I’ve enrolled into night school, I’m pursuing my business administration degree right now. It’s more balance in my life for sure, it feels great.

I do feel like Year Up saved my life.

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