This story is Part 4 of FCAN’s The Students Who Make Florida Talent Strong series, which highlights the different pathways available for Florida students to achieve education beyond high school. Read Part 1 2 and 3 now.
Smaya Arana is a traditional-aged, first-generation college student currently pursuing an undergraduate degree at a Florida College System institution. During her college years, she enrolled in a college and career training program that led to her current full-time job with J.P. Morgan.
It didn’t take long for Smaya Arana to start feeling a bit complacent in college.
In 2019, Smaya was in her first year at State College of Florida in Bradenton while also working part time at a local Boys & Girls Club. Despite being busy with work and school, Smaya also carved out time to figure out a way to improve her circumstances.
“I just felt like I didn’t want to be in the same position or in the same spot a year from that time,” said Smaya, 21. “I did some research on my own, Googled some internship opportunities, and that’s when I found out about Year Up.”
Year Up helps young adults gain the skills, experiences, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through careers and higher education. Since its inception in 2000, the organization has served more than 34,000 students across its 29 campuses nationwide. The average annual starting salary of Year Up graduates is $44,000, and 83% of Year Up alums are employed and/or enrolled in a postsecondary institution within four months of completing the program.
After completing an internship at J.P. Morgan this past January through Year Up, Smaya began working as a business resiliency analyst for the company the following month. On top of her full-time workload at J.P. Morgan, Smaya is also currently in her junior year at St. Petersburg College, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“When you’re pursuing school and education, you also have to be able to adapt,” Smaya said. “Education is what taught me to adapt, and I think education is important because it opens the door to experience.”
Blazing a postsecondary trail in her family
Smaya is the first member of her immediate family to attend college.
Both her parents — her mother worked as a caregiver prior to being diagnosed with cancer in 2016, while her dad previously owned an air conditioning company in the family’s native Nicaragua — earned high school diplomas. She also has two older brothers who bypassed college in favor of pursuing their career goals after completing high school.
“When my brothers graduated high school, they were passionate about music and that was their primary focus,” Smaya said. Although her parents encouraged Smaya to continue her education beyond high school, she didn’t require a ton of convincing. “I was always very interested in going to college.”
Smaya — who was born in Miami but raised in Sarasota, where she graduated from Booker High School — said that it wasn’t until she encountered Year Up that she began to sharpen her personal and professional focus.
“A big focus with Year Up is, ‘what is your why?’ What is motivating you to do whatever it is you are doing?” Smaya said. “Because when motivation runs out, that’s when self-discipline kicks in.”
What a difference Year Up makes
Year Up works to ensure equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults. The organization’s training focuses on five key areas: business operations, financial operations, information technology, sales & customer support, and software development.
Phase 1 of the year-long program is focused on learning and development for the first six months, while Phase 2 is comprised of a six-month internship with a corporate partner. Tuition for Year Up’s job training program is free, and students can earn an educational stipend throughout the program
Smaya enrolled at Year Up through its partnership with St. Petersburg College, one of three Florida locations along with Jacksonville and Miami. She received a stipend of $100 every two weeks through Phase 1 and $300 every two weeks during Phase 2. Although the stipend was helpful, Smaya said the program’s true value came in preparing her to succeed in college and the workforce.
“There’s an admissions director who helps you with the (college) classes you need or don’t need,” said Smaya, who added that she especially enjoyed the Year Up learning and development sessions she was taking alongside her college classes during Phase 1. “That’s where we learned what regular classes don’t teach you, like how to write a check or giving a proper handshake.”
Smaya’s began her yearlong stint with Year Up in early 2020, which means all her classes and sessions — including one-on-one sessions with Year Up coaches — were abruptly moved into a virtual space during the spring.
“It was the same expectation, but just in a virtual environment,” Smaya said. “That was another situation that taught me how to adapt.”
Realizing the power of education
Smaya admits that it took her some time to adjust to balancing a full-time workload with her classes at St. Petersburg College.
“I was new to working 8 or 9 hours a day, then having to go into my classes. Once I got my momentum going and figuring out what works best for me, I started to get the hang of it,” she said. Smaya believes it’s imperative for her to continue her education, despite already earning a coveted position with J.P. Morgan. “I have a good position — it isn’t an entry-level position — but I do know that if I want to go further, a lot of employers want a degree. So I knew my education would have to continue.”
Although she doesn’t currently have a particular type of business in mind, she is confident the knowledge, experience, and degree in business administration she is pursuing will give her a leg up on the competition. Smaya credits her time with Year Up for helping her recognize the value of education.
“When the manager at J.P. Morgan was looking at Year Up for someone to hire, they said, ‘I want the best person you have to offer,’” she said. “Doing the research to find the Year Up program on my own and going through it opened so many doors and opportunities for me and made me realize that education is what got me to where I am.”
FCAN believes that in order to build a Talent Strong Florida with a strong, nimble economy, all Floridians need access to high-quality training and learning opportunities after high school and throughout their careers. Visit FCAN’s Talent Strong Florida page to learn if your community is talent strong!
Learn more about Talent Strong Florida
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The Students Who Make Florida Talent Strong: Marquis McGary and Florentina Denis-McGary
The Students Who Make Florida Talent Strong: Delaenam Akahoho