News at WilmU

What a Difference a Year Makes

The partnership between Year Up and WilmU is transforming lives.

Cover Story by Maria Hess

Photos by Paul Patton
Photo of Maria Esther Mendez De La Cruz by Emir Lake

woman smiling

Maria Esther Mendez De La Cruz doubted herself before starting her Year Up program. Now, fortified with confidence, she’s building a new life.

When Maria Esther Mendez De La Cruz’s father was deported to Mexico, she became a statistic. She joined the ranks of thousands of U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents forced to adapt to a country they don’t understand, a language they don’t speak, and a society that considers them outcasts. Her father, Sebastian Mendez Gordillo, was left to deal with the agonizing uncertainty of ever being reunited with his family again. For Maria, who was 11 at the time, losing him was “horrible,” she says. “It was out of nowhere that they took him. He always took care of us — anything school-related, he was there. He was the head of the household.”

Like many migrant families, hers had come to America full of hope, only to see their dreams shattered by the loss of their patriarch. The deportation strained the marriage as well, and Maria’s parents divorced. Left to fend for themselves, Maria, her mother, Josefina De La Cruz, and her siblings shared a small apartment with a relative until Josefina remarried.

School was Maria’s salvation. She was good at math — her father forced her to learn every multiplication table before she turned 7. But now, he wasn’t around to help, to offer guidance, or to witness her moving-up ceremonies in middle school.

Maria was accepted to Howard High School in Wilmington, but got pregnant in her sophomore year. Suddenly responsible for raising a baby boy, Isaias, she missed her junior and senior years. Josefina, who had had two more children, insisted that her daughter finish, and took on the role of caregiver for Isaias while Maria transferred to nearby McKean High School and completed her studies. She took extra online classes, never missed a day of senior year, and graduated with honors.

Aside from Facetime, Maria hasn’t seen her father in 10 years. And she can’t go back to Mexico. As a DACA (Deferred Action for Young Childhood Arrivals) citizen, a designation granted to her in 2017, she had a two-year timeframe to get a Social Security number and a job, and did both. “And I couldn’t leave the U.S.,” she says. “I could work here, which was a plus — many others don’t have that luxury — but DACA members couldn’t get financial aid or health care. If anything, all that had to come out of our pockets.”

Prospects would have been worse in Puebla, Mexico, where the rest of her family remains. Had she stayed there, the chances of going to college would’ve been slim, she says. “Most of my cousins didn’t even make it to high school, and women rarely made it to college.”

Maria hoped to enroll at Dela-ware Technical Community College, but without financial aid, she couldn’t afford tuition. She worked as a waitress, married Francisco Sauce — also from Puebla — and worried that her dream of earning a degree and utilizing her considerable math skills for a potential banking career would never be realized.
Unwilling to throw in the towel, Maria discovered Wilmington Job Corps, a free education and job-training program for young adults, and earned certifications in Microsoft, Word and PowerPoint. There, she learned about Year Up.

And that’s where her new story began.

Dr. Eileen Donnelly and her colleagues, Jeff Martino (right) and Peter Lonie work closely with the Year Up team.

The Plan

Year Up, which was founded in 2000, is a national, one-year intensive program that provides low-income adults with hands-on skills, coursework eligible for college credit, an educational stipend, corporate internships, and wraparound support from mentors and coaches immersed in their journeys. Corporate sponsors cover the costs, so the program, which has helped nearly 20,000 participants, is free. In August of 2017, a partner-
ship between Wilmington University and Year Up was established, and the nonprofit operates its statewide office at WilmU’s New Castle location. Maria is part of the 30-member inaugural class, though the number of enrollees is expected to grow.

Year Up serves a neglected population that can potentially handle the rigors of college and succeed in the global workforce. According to its records, nearly 5 million youth, ages 18 to 24, have not progressed beyond a high school diploma and are neither employed nor enrolled in postsecondary institutions. Additionally, more than 70 percent of low-income minority youth in America leave high school without a path to college or a decent job. Year Up addresses this crisis by empowering people who have slipped through the cracks. And Fortune 500 companies benefit as well — the nonprofit trains potential candidates for available jobs.

According to reports from, postsecondary education is recommended for new jobs that require a combination of decision-making, communication, analysis and administration skills — the same skills Year Up emphasizes. Some 12 million jobs requiring postsecondary learning are expected to go unfilled in the next decade, which is one reason Year Up provides students with resources, inspires them to persevere, and trains them to compete on the global stage. It prepares them for well-paying employment opportunities, which, in turn, will fulfill the needs of a booming marketplace.

Year Up students take six months of career-relevant courses at WilmU, then earn an internship at a local company for the next six months. While they’re provided extraordinary coaching and mentors, they must embrace strict standards.

“The students are young and are vetted,” says Dr. Eileen Donnelly, vice president of Enrollment Management at Wilmington University. “That’s because this isn’t an easy gig. You have to be able to do the work, because for the WilmU portion, it’s 9 to 5, five days a week. Lateness and absences have consequences or result in infractions.”

Maria can attest to that.

She’s considered a high-performing student, yet she’s had a few stumbles. At WilmU, she says, “I got an infraction for being late,” explaining that she got stuck in traffic. “I got another one due to illness, and another time, I was eating something in the computer lab and got another infraction.”

If anyone had reasonable excuses for these breaches, it was Maria. She worked nights as a waitress from
5 to 11 — after a full day of school; her husband, a cook, got one night off and couldn’t help with Isaias; and every morning, before starting her day, Maria fed her son and got him ready for his. Year Up cut her no slack, theoretically preparing her for workplace reality. Like other working mothers, she would be expected to show up on time despite personal challenges.

She’s fine with that. “I don’t mind the infractions; I agree with them,” Maria says. “Even now, I don’t tend to be late. I learned at WilmU that being on time is important. The discipline made me more professional and more accountable for my actions.”

Accountability is key, as is managing rigorous professional and academic standards and accepting constructive feedback. Still, poignant relationships blossom, particularly between mentees and mentors. Maria’s Year Up coach is External Relations Manager Brittaney Shade. “She changed my life,” says Maria. Of Dr. Donnelly, her WilmU mentor, she says, “I love her, I really do. I see it in her eyes that she cares for me and wants me to succeed. She listens. There are people you talk to who don’t pay attention, but Dr. Donnelly cares. I can feel it.”

For Shade and Dr. Donnelly, the feelings are mutual. “As cliché as this sounds, Maria, like many of the Year Up students, motivates me every day to do more and work harder to close the Opportunity Divide,” says Shade.
Dr. Donnelly concurs: “Maria is a wife, she’s a mother, and she had a part-time job when she was a full-time student. But she was here every day and she did very well. I have great respect for her.”

That respect was earned. Maria landed an internship at JP Morgan Chase, where she is exploring the financial industry. She attributes her success to family and mentors, as well as Michael Woglom, her Year Up admissions specialist coach, and her WilmU professors, especially Dr. Donald Stuhlman, who chairs the Finance programs.
Maria also thanks her father.

“After the internship, we’ll have a ceremony in July,” she says. “Unfortunately he can’t come back nor can I go (to Mexico) because I won’t be able to enter back into the U.S. But I think of him every day. If he never brought us here, none of this would have happened.”

man speaking in microphone

Year Up Executive Director Hassan Charles is passionate about closing the Opportunity Divide.

The WilmU Connection

Hassan Charles, Year Up’s executive director for the greater Philadelphia region, works closely with Dr. Donnelly and her colleagues Jeff Martino, the director of WilmU’s University Partnership Center, and Peter Lonie, its Wilmington site director. “The relationships Year Up has developed across the campus and University community has had a tremendous impact on the success of our first cohort of students at Wilmington University,” says Charles. “From University leadership to individual departments to security and facilities staff, all have been welcoming and have provided the needed resources to support our students’ success. The professionalism and follow-up by Wilmington University staff truly reflects the University’s values around equity, opportunity, student engagement, partnerships and responsiveness.”

He saw changes in the students in the first six months at WilmU. “Our learning and development phase is very transformative for students,” Charles says, adding that when they start the program, they lack confidence in their professional and technical skills, yet leave prepared to tackle a rigorous six-month internship at a Fortune 500 company. “Students are introduced to an array of content, ranging from finance to software development through classes taught by Wilmington University professors,” Charles says, so they develop professional skills and “leave able to deliver an effective elevator pitch, to network with other professionals, deliver presentations and even tie a necktie. They are transformed into motivated young professionals.”

At the beginning, Maria says, “I didn’t see myself going through those six months at a university. It would be too much work and stress. But I learned so much, and Year Up gave us classes on networking, teamwork, communication and the professional skills. I doubted myself, but I got it together and just did it.”

Partnership Center Director Jeff Martino serves as the liaison between Year Up and WilmU.

She studied economics, banking, finance and Excel at WilmU, which she believes prepared her for the finance-based internship at JP Morgan Chase. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, “but I chose those (courses) because we learned about bonds, financial statements, balance sheets and taxes, and all of that would have prepared me to intern at many Fortune 500 companies.”

People who know Maria have little doubt that she will join the ranks of Year Up participants who go back to college to complete their degrees, or get an offer from the employer for whom they interned. Then there’s the best scenario: to be awarded tuition assistance from
their new employers to finish

More than 90 percent of YearUp graduates in this region are working or continuing their education, says Charles. “More than half our students gain employment through their internship experiences with a Year Up corporate partner. Those students who are working earn an average wage of $19.30 per hour or more than $40,000 annually.”

They work for it. “It’s through these WilmU and Year Up resources and pure effort on the part of our students that they are able to leverage the opportunities we can provide collectively to launch meaningful careers and become lifelong learners,” Charles says.

He adds that his greatest joy is talking about the students. “It’s telling potential partners that if they were to meet just one Year Up student, they would immediately understand the difference in their preparation and ability to contribute from day one on the job.”

year up business location

Site Director Peter Lonie at Year Up’s statewide office on The Green at WilmU’s New Castle location

A Win-Win

The partnership between WilmU and Year Up was the brainchild of Dr. Stefanie Whitby, who, at the time, worked with Dr. Donnelly in the Partnership Office and is now athletics director. “Stefanie is really the person who discovered Year Up, developed a Memo of Understanding and did the work,” says Dr. Donnelly.

The benefits are clear all around. For the University, it’s a chance to serve more students and nurture or establish corporate partnerships. “Our missions are aligned,” says Dr. Donnelly, adding that the Year Up students who choose to complete their degrees at WilmU will be welcomed with open arms. They already have long-term privileges to use University resources like the library, since a goal for both Year Up and WilmU is to inspire lifelong learning.
For Charles, Year Up provides him the opportunity to leave a legacy he thinks will far outlive him. “I’m passionate about closing the Opportunity Divide,” he says, “and providing opportunities to young adults who may not have the support and resources to self-actualize or develop to their full potential.”

For employers, Year Up is bringing well-trained workers to the table. “I have people coming to my company who have graduated directly out of Yale,” says New Signature CEO Christopher Hertz. “And I will tell you, they could learn something from the Year Up interns in terms of professionalism.”

two people talking

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki says the partnership can have a positive effect on job growth.

For government leaders, job creation is tied to economic growth. “The job crisis is fueled by a skills crisis,” says Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki. “The partnership between Year Up and Wilmington University combines relevant, career-driven academics with internships at large companies throughout Delaware. Those companies have well-paying jobs available, and this partnership is preparing dedicated students to fill them.”
And the students — people like Maria — find hope. “I want to get a full-time job in corporate America, make sure my son is happy at school, and maybe even buy a house,” she says. “I want to be economically stable.”
She also plans to complete her degree at Wilmington University after her internship. When she does, she’ll be the first in her family to graduate from college. “Dropping out of school will not be an option for my brothers or my son,” she says. “They won’t go through life like I did.”

Maria desires a career in banking, since she is, after all, good with numbers. She didn’t know it at the time, but when her father forced her to study math at a young age, he was preparing her for a life he never had. His absence will always be painful. “There are times I still dream that I arrive in Mexico to see him,” Maria says. “Then I wake up crying.”

So for her, achieving success will honor her parents, Sebastian and Josefina. Maria understands their struggle to bring their children to America, knowing that their own happiness was never guaranteed. When she finally walks across the commencement stage in cap and gown, she will pay tribute to them and all those who supported her. Her diploma will serve as inspiration for her son.

Through the partnership between Year Up and WilmU, Maria has learned the value of higher education. “My degree will be mine,” she says. “No one can ever take that away from me.”

ribbon cutting

The Year Up/Wilmington University partnership became official in August of 2017. From left: Peter Lonie (Wilmington site director), Casey Recupero (YU national site director), Erika Potts (YU program manager), Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, Tom Horne ( JP Morgan Chase), Dr. Eileen Donnelly (VP, Enrollment Management, WilmU), Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, Rasheeda Russell (YU alumna), Hassan Charles (YU executive director), Jeff Martino (Partnership Center director), Dr. Erin DiMarco (WilmU Senior VP, COO), Claire Borelli (JPMorgan Chase, board member), Alyssa Bradley (YU Student Services)

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