What Do Disadvantaged Youth Need More than Anything Else?

Jan 12, 2016

Urban Alliance is a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that matches disadvantaged high school students with internships, mentors and a path to the workforce. This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees, supported by America’s Promise Alliance and the Citi Foundation, are placing low-income young adults on a path toward college and career success.

Urban Alliance Youth

"What do you need?”

Andrew Plepler posed this question to students at Anacostia High School in 1996. At the time, he was an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.

A young man answered, “I need a real job.”

Plepler then handed the student his business card, promised to help him find a job, and waited for him to call. The call never came.

When Plepler returned to Anacostia High and asked that same student why he didn’t reach out, the student responded, “I didn’t think you were serious.” He added, “My friends need jobs, too.”

Plepler found jobs for this student and five of his friends, leading later that year to the creation of Urban Alliance.

Today, Urban Alliance places about 200 high school seniors each year in internships. The organization recently received a Youth Opportunity Fund grant from the Citi Foundation and America's Promise Alliance to reach more young people in D.C.

“That exposure piece is huge for a high school senior,” said Nathaniel Cole, the group’s executive director. “I also hear from our partners about the value that interns bring to the companies, and how they’re getting something out of the experience just as much as the intern.”

How to Find and Match Interns

Urban Alliance works with the D.C. Public School System and the charter school system to find interns and appropriate placements.

Intern From Urban Alliance

After filling out an extensive profile and being matched with a mentor and a company, young people work 12 hours a week for $10 an hour. Interns must have a 2.5 GPA, an early release or half-day schedule, and a positive attitude. “You need to be positive if this is something that you really want,” Cole said.

To match interns with companies, Urban Alliance goes through an extensive process. “It’s intense,” Cole said. “It’s sharing our story, reaching out to companies via their HR departments, their community relations or corporate social responsibility staff, and seeing if there’s a way for them to partner with us.”

Companies also complete a questionnaire, which describes the job and what they’re looking for in an intern. “We’re able to make the best match possible by pulling information from that document,” Cole said.

Urban Alliance then looks for mentors in the company who can be fully committed. “We’re really looking to support them every step of the way,” Cole said. “So we do a mentor orientation at the beginning of the year to talk about what the standard is, what the expectations are, and how you can be successful as a mentor.”

The Biggest Change in Interns

After interns successfully complete the program, they become Urban Alliance alums, receiving networking and professional development support from the nonprofit for another four years.

What’s the biggest change Cole sees in students who have completed internships? In a word, confidence.

At first, Cole said, students often question if they’re good enough for the company they’re about to work for or if they have what it takes to succeed.

“Our students are nervous, like anyone might be, and that confidence begins to come through as their internship progresses,” Cole said. “And eventually they see that, ‘You know what? I can handle this, I can do this, and I am a value to my company.’”

To learn more about nonprofits working to place low-income young adults on a path to success, check out other Youth Opportunity Fund grantees.