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Star Struck

Tech graduates shine in work and community

When David Williams ran out of money during his first year at Illinois State University, he went home to Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, where the unemployment rate is nearly 23 percent. Living with his mother, he enrolled in community college and worked low-wage jobs, “about anything I could do,” he says.

None of these jobs involved writing computer code or packaging data for a healthcare consultancy, which is what Williams does now at Michael Pine Associates in downtown Chicago.

What accounts for the change? Williams heard about i.c. stars, a technology training program that serves low-income adults. “I didn’t believe it at first,” he says. Plus, it was a sacrifice—12 hours a day, five days a week for four months. “Then I talked with alumni and they were telling about where they were before i.c. stars and I related. I knew it was right for me.”

But it wasn’t a done deal. i.c. stars accepts between 2 and 5 percent of its applicants, according to Co-founder and President Sandee Kastrul. Among the requirements: a GED, at least six months’ work experience, and also some intangible qualities, including resilience, a capacity to solve problems, and a sense of working for something bigger than oneself. “They’ll say, ‘I was up against a wall, and this is what I did,’” she says. Successful candidates demonstrate grit. “And who better than inner-city kids?”

Job placement runs at 95 percent; the industry retention rate, 81 percent. Other measures: salaries jump exponentially, home ownership rises, and 65 percent of alumni become community leaders, testimony to the similarity between the IT process and community problem-solving, Kastrul says.

As for Williams, he recently spoke to high school students in Austin. His game plan: gain work experience, return to college, and emerge with a great job offer, a victory in a generation that has seen even its privileged students struggle.