Year Up Program and Beyond
He connected with La Casa Student Housing and Resource Center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. La Casa provides housing, resources, and a stipend for qualifying students who remain enrolled in school. Ruben took full advantage of La Casa’s resources, but without his family’s support, he felt marooned, especially after tuition payments zapped his savings.
“I had a hard time because I was not living with my parents anymore and I didn’t have any money,” he said. “There was just no family support on my end. Support from other people is very different than the support of your family.”
Combined with the rigors of a college workload, being cut off from his family proved too difficult, so Ruben dropped his classes and withdrew from school. Now ineligible for La Casa’s resources, he returned home and struck a deal with his parents for room and board. Ruben worked on his dad’s construction crew to pay for his share of expenses at home.
“As soon as I got my check, I had to give 10 percent to the church. Another percentage went to my mom, for her personally. Another percentage went to my food. And another percentage went to the rent,” he said.
Ruben is very skilled when it comes to building things. He’s proud of the practical experience and knowledge he learned working in construction. But on the job site, Ruben tended to overexert himself. While this tenacity and determination serves him well in other areas of his life, at the time, it wreaked havoc on his body.
“Working in construction is hard work. I got two hernias because of it,” he said. “That kind of work drains a lot of energy from you. When you get back home, all you want to do is just relax. That alone just added another layer of tension and stress in my house and in the relationship between my dad and mom.”
Working on his dad’s crew wore thin. The back-breaking labor, sweltering days in the sun, and lack of health insurance took their toll. Ruben knew he needed to find a different career, so he began talking to other professionals.
“I had conversations with teachers, engineers, and lawyers,” he said. “All of them would tell me the same exact thing: go to school.”
That’s when Ruben heard about Year Up Chicago, a one-year, intensive training program that provides low-income young adults with a combination of hands-on skills development, coursework eligible for college credit, corporate internships, and wraparound support. The program sounded ideal and Ruben decided to pursue it.
“When I decided to do Year Up, I told my dad that I probably wasn’t going to pay him as much anymore, and he told me I needed to find a new place to live,” Ruben said.
Weighing his options for housing, as he prepared to once again move out of his parent’s home, Ruben enrolled in the Year Up program. He hit the ground running. He was bursting with energy and hyperfocused on succeeding. But a week or two after starting the program, his mom passed away.
“I was devastated. That had a huge impact on me. I thought I was the kind of kid who, if something like that happened, I wouldn’t show it,” he said.
Ruben, then 19, thought he could just keep going about his days, but he was wrong.
“It was completely the opposite. I was constantly distracted and never focused. I wasn’t turning in my assignments on time. I was coming in late,” he said.
“No matter how much I was trying to succeed, no matter how much I was trying to go back to school and get an education, it just wasn’t there for me. I was shredded inside.”