Bright futures: Chattanooga's STEP-UP program helps diverse students earn career success

Contributed photography / Tyrese Starling worked as a STEP-UP intern at Komatsu during high school, and is a student entrepreneur at Middle Tennessee State University.

For Tyrese Starling, the STEP-UP internship program was more than just an opportunity to earn some money and learn new skills during high school.

"I don't know if I would have went to college without them and met the people I know now - people that look like me that have doctorate degrees, master's degrees, working downtown," says Starling, a Tyner High School graduate and a junior at Middle Tennessee State University. "Everybody in my family and 80% of the people I went to school with, they graduate and work in a factory. There's nothing wrong with that, but I guess I wanted more."

As the first person in his family to go to college, Starling, 22, is breaking a pattern of financial struggle that the STEP-UP program was designed to dismantle, says Jeff Rector, the business partnerships manager for STEP-UP.

"We get emails from parents and grandmas and aunts and uncles saying these words: This program changed my kid's life," Rector says. "It's breaking the cycle, and it gives them hope."

The program exposed him for the first time to mentors who could help him imagine what was possible, Starling says.

"Role models that looked like me, and role models that did not," Starling says. "But they all wanted the best for me."

Rector describes the requirements of the program as straightforward: good attendance, a good attitude and on track to graduate. About 99% of participants are from low-income households, and they are typically referred by teachers and counselors in Hamilton County schools.

"We want the program to help them understand that there's more to the world than what they see between home and school, and to prepare them for better paying jobs which turns into health insurance and benefits and a better life overall," he says.

STEP-UP milestones

Since 2016:* More than 1,300 students have been trained* 571 have worked in a paid summer internship* Interns have earned almost $850,000* 64 were placed in jobs during the pandemic<

A Foot in the Door

Starling grew up moving around the city, first living with his grandmother in East Chattanooga and, after she passed away, moving in with his mother.

"Mom didn't make much money, so she had to move around a lot," Starling says.

He learned about the STEP-UP program during high school, and wanted to attend the training sessions. There was a problem with that plan, but the people running the STEP-UP program made sure it got solved, Starling says.

"It was hard to go through the program for me because I didn't have reliable transportation," he says. "My mom was always super busy and stuff, so they would find people to sponsor you and give you rides."

In the sessions, Starling learned how to write a resume, how to interview for a job, how to apply for scholarships and hit application deadlines and - his favorite session - how to read body language.

"I almost wanted to go study psychology after she talked to us," he says. "She could tell I was nervous because I had my hands fidgeting, my foot was tapping, she could tell what I was thinking."

The training paid off with a summer job offer at heavy equipment manufacturer Komatsu, where Starling worked documenting assembly line processes.

"You watch them put something together and note what he's doing every time he moves," Starling explains. "Once he finishes the process, they use that data to estimate how long it would take to make something bigger or smaller than that."

The work was fascinating, and like nothing he had ever done before, Starling says.

"It was challenging," he says. "They would help me, but they wouldn't answer every question, they would let me think for myself."

Now at MTSU studying computer science, Starling has started a business with his friends, and is still exploring possible career paths. The STEP-UP program is where he first understood the breadth of his options, he says.

"I wasn't on a destructive path or anything like that, but I feel like my life would have been pretty bland or written for me already," he says. "I wouldn't feel like I had a choice. The STEP-UP program gave me choices."

Building STEP-UP

The Chattanooga STEP-UP program through the Public Education Foundation was modeled off a similar, successful program in Minneapolis, Rector says.

"STEP-UP was intentionally created to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion within the workforce and give under-represented Hamilton County students the confidence they need to seek the best career opportunities," he says.

Nearly 60% of Chattanooga's public school students are economically disadvantaged and 40% are students of color, Rector adds.

"Despite these percentages, not nearly enough Black, Latinx, and students from low-income backgrounds are graduating from high school and matriculating to a best-fit college or career pathway," he says.

The loss of those students from professional pipelines is lost potential for the workforce and for the community, Rector says. "Businesses need a well-trained, diverse workforce to fill the growing number of jobs," he says.

STEP-UP applicants complete training in work-readiness skills, develop a resume, and engage in mock interviews before they can interview for summer internships. The program was initially funded by grants from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation and Benwood Foundation, and the city continues to provide funding every year, Rector says.

"STEP-UP is about building community, we want to provide opportunities for students who typically would not have access to these types of experiences," Rector says.

Businesses participating in STEP-UP since its 2016 launch

* Benwood Foundation* Bessie Smith Cultural Center* BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee* Bridge Scholars* Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce* Chattanooga Gas Company* Chattanooga State Community College* Chattanooga Times Free Press* Chattanooga Zoo* CHI Memorial* City of Chattanooga* Creative Discovery Museum* EPB* Erlanger Health Systems* Greenspaces* Northside Neighborhood House* Parkridge Health System* Public Education Foundation* River City Company* SmartBank* SunTrust Bank* Tennessee Aquarium* The Enterprise Center* United Way* Vision Hosptality Group* Warren and Griffin Law Firm* WRCB

Powering Opportunity

Ketha Richardson has been the director of inclusion and diversity for EPB for six months, but he spent 13 years overseeing purchasing and inventory before that career shift. Interns from the STEP-UP program often worked in his area, and he loved introducing them to the day-to-day details of the job.

"My whole team enjoyed working with them and showing them around, and it was like a competition to see who could engage more of their interest," he says.

EPB typically hires 10 students from STEP-UP each summer, though they had to pause their participation in 2020, as did many businesses, says Kim Appeldoorn, who works in human resources at EPB as a talent development specialist, coordinating STEP-UP and other community pipeline programs.

"This summer we're looking forward to having our student interns again," she says. The program is a great opportunity for the students to earn money and grow their skills, but it also benefits EPB employees, Appeldoorn says.

"It's also reverse mentoring in a way," she says. "These generations coming up, not to sound old, but they have so many bright ideas and so many process improvements, and it's great for our employees to learn from them."


Shanice Garner and Starling were Tyner classmates and friends who joined the program together. Garner did her internship at EPB the summer of 2017, and took a trip to the University of the South at Sewanee for a few days as part of STEP-UP.

"That was my first exposure to college," says Garner, who is 22 and will graduate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this year. The first in her family to go to college, she'll begin a master's degree in finance at Vanderbilt University this fall.

"Having EPB on my resume and having that initial intern experience really helped me a lot," says Garner, who has had several other internships since that first summer. "Getting to work in a corporation helped me with making the right decision to go into business."

Garner works now in financial planning and analysis at Unum, scheduling her shifts around classes and working remotely from Knoxville.

"I did a summer internship with them, they made it remote and they invited me to come back," she says. That first STEP-UP internship gave her the confidence to work in a corporate environment, Garners adds.

"Getting up for work every day and having to put on professional clothes and know how to work on a team and how to present and talk to people around you," she says. "Doing STEP-UP was one of the best decisions I ever made."

Strong Start

Emily Thomas, 21, took a role in sales at Bellhop as her first STEP-UP internship in the summer of 2016, but she really wasn't sure how it would pan out.

"I hadn't heard of the company before, I had no idea what it was," she says. "It was my first chance to make my own money."

Not quite five years later, at 21, she's an IT team lead for the moving company, and has completed her bachelor's degree in computer science at UTC. Once she finished that first STEP-UP internship, she never left Bellhop.

"I just liked being at Bellhop so much, I was like, I just really want to do that," she says.

Her manager invited her to continue to work part time her senior year, and she'd pull shifts after school and into the evenings. As a student at Collegiate High School at Chattanooga State Community College, she completed high school at the same time she earned an associate's degree in web design, and transitioned from sales to IT in her job.

"They talked to the engineering department at that time, and the director of engineering agreed to have me move to an internship role in engineering in January 2017," she says. "I would work on days I didn't have school."

By her junior year at UTC, she was promoted to a full-time job, and in December 2019, six months before she graduated from college, Thomas was a team lead.

"The internship really made me realize I could have a career in computer science," she says. "I graduated college without any debt - I actually had savings," she says.

Financial independence was important to her, and it was a big help to her family, Thomas says. Her parents had been attorneys in India, but they had to sart over professionally when they came to the United States with her sister, who is 11 years older than her, Thomas says.

"They were restarting their life in their 30s and 40s," she said. "They had me at an older age, and only my mom works - I didn't want to be an obligation on them."

Adding Up

Alexis Pope is 19, and on her third accounting internship through STEP-UP, this time with HHM Accountants after two summers crunching numbers with CBL. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga freshman is majoring in accounting and finance, and graduated from the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts in 2020 ready to build her career, she says.

"Accounting was kind of set in stone by the time I was a junior," she says. "I love math. I love puzzles. Math has always been my niche."

Her mother heard about the STEP-UP program from a friend whose daughter was participating, and Pope jumped at the chance to get an early shot at understanding what it would take to become an accountant.

"It gives me a glimpse of what I want to do," she says. "I feel like this will give me a step in the right direction."

Pope isn't the first in her family to attend college, but she expects to be the first to graduate. Her father had to leave college for financial reasons, but she's building a strong financial foundation through her internships, Pope says.

Pope is the oldest of five, and one her sisters has also had a STEP-UP internship, while two other siblings applied but weren't placed in roles. The greatest need the program has is for more employers to participate, Rector says.

"Once employers tried it, they were really impressed with the quality of the students, but still an area we struggle in is getting enough employers," he says. "We'll train over 200, but we don't have the jobs to put them in."

STEP-UP typically places 150 students a year, though the number was down significantly during the pandemic. Employers hire the students and pay them what they would pay any other entry-level employee, Rector says. But the program can't promise anyone a job.

"We don't guarantee the student a job - we guarantee them the work-readiness training, the resume building and interviews," Rector says.

Makaylah Ariazi oversees the program partnership for HHM Accountants, which began participating in 2019.

"I did some research and fell in love with the program," she says. "We had never hired a high-school-age student, so it was kind of unfamiliar to us, but we put together a list of different projects they could help us with in the summer."

A New Path

In the summer of 2019, HHM hired Baljot Kaur to process proposals and tax returns.

Kaur, 19, graduated in 2019 from Polytech Academy on the Chattanooga State campus. Through STEP-UP, she did summer internships at HHM and then SmartBank, and she's now at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville pursuing her degree in business analytics and computer science.

During high school, she earned most of her credits toward an associate's degree in computer science, and the internships set her up for success in a professional environment, she says.

"I noticed a very big difference the first summer I interned than the second summer," Kaur says. "At SmartBank I understood the nuances of business better, my communication definitely improved, I was more confident and I knew what I was doing."

Kaur was born in India and moved to Chattanooga at 5 years old. Her family works in the restaurant industry, and she has always helped out in the business and with her younger brother.

"I have always been working - I started working at the family restaurant when I was 10 or 11," she says. Kaur had a number of jobs growing up, in retail and as a tutor, but the STEP-UP program was her first exposure to the business world, she says.

"The biggest thing I learned was the soft skills and the nuances, how to write emails, communicate with my boss, talk to people, situations like those," she says. "Getting a step into that door, that business world, allows you to expand your horizons exponentially."

Her ability to earn money while she gained those experiences was crucial, Kaur adds.

"It was really nice because it helped put some money on the table for my family because we're not incredibly wealthy, either," she says.

Kaur is the first in her family to go to college, but she won't be the last, she predicts. Her sister is 14 and her brother is 6.

"My siblings shouldn't be too far behind me," Kaur says.


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