How this community college student turned her biggest weakness into a marketable strength

Year Up helped Stephanie Pinto capitalize on what she always thought was her biggest weakness: talking. NewsHour still image.

Year Up helped Stephanie Pinto capitalize on what she always thought was her biggest weakness: talking. NewsHour still image.

Editor’s Note: In her third year of community college, Stephanie Pinto began to question whether college was for her. Looking up to an older brother in the Marines, she considered enlisting in the Air Force, and would have come close had a pastor at her church not given her a brochure for Year Up in 2011. Through the paid career development program, which Making Sen$e profiled in 2008 and again this week, she’s now an intern at State Street as a pricing associate. And, when Making Sen$e met her this spring, she was back in school full-time at Bunker Hill Community College, with hopes of earning a bachelor’s degree elsewhere.

Like her fellow Year Up students Shaquilla Boyce and Daniel Alexandre, Pinto comes from an immigrant family (Cape Verde), and she credits Year Up with pushing her to capitalize on her soft skills — in her case, being a fluid conversationalist — to her advantage in the job market. As Year Up founder and CEO Gerald Chertavian told us, that skill development is the “special sauce” of Year Up. In the edited transcript below, Paul Solman interviews Pinto about her Year Up experience.

Watch more of Pinto in our Making Sen$e segment on Year Up.

— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

What was the appeal of Year Up?

At that moment, it is was definitely the educational stipend. We’re giving you money to attend these classes. We’re offering you qualifications that employers are looking for, while also giving you an internship, and there’s an opportunity for employment at the end of that internship. That sounded way too good to be true; how could you pass up on an opportunity like that?

And so you didn’t pass it up?

No, I didn’t, definitely not. I took it by the horns.

How did it change you?

During that phase of having no confidence, Year Up was that push. You’re being pushed off a cliff, like “do it.” I had no idea what my strengths were, what skills I had to offer. Year Up is so good at picking those out for you and giving you the opportunity to capitalize on that.

So for example, I’m a good talker. I’ve always been criticized for talking in school — during elementary you had, “Don’t talk, don’t talk” — so I’m like, wow, I talk too much. But Year Up was like, no, no, use that as a strength — you have to really sell yourself. You have that ability to speak to people — some people don’t have those skills, they have trouble standing in front of crowds talking — but you can eloquently say what you want and people are listening. So I was able to capitalize on that skill that I didn’t even know was a strength of mine.

You have no problem speaking in front of groups of people?

No, not at all. Sometimes I get nervous, you do get the little jitters in the beginning because you don’t wanna fumble or fail, but once I start, it’s like it just comes out.

What’s different about you from the kids you grew up with? Just the opportunity?

I would definitely say the opportunity. I’m coming from Brockton High. The opportunities here to get internships, to get involved with companies, that’s not offered in Brockton. We’re not so close to a hub of financial activity.

I commute an hour and a half each way to Boston. So if I was to wake up at like 6 to get to class at like 8:30, I would have 30 minutes to get ready just so I can make sure I get there in an hour and a half. Yeah, it’s a tough commute, but it’s worth it, definitely worth it.

What percentage of the people you know would do well or as well as you, roughly speaking, if they had the Year Up opportunity that you’ve had?

I would say a good 50 to 55 percent. I give credit definitely to my high school for how well they try to get you to get into college, so I know quite a few people that are in college and were able to figure out what they wanted, but then there are the others that struggled in high school and felt like they didn’t have the means to go to college or they didn’t have the potential, which is quite sad. You want to let people know they have the potential to do remarkable things.

Do they?

Definitely. There are these employers seeking talented people. Then there’s the students and the young adults who want that job, but how do they get it? Who do they talk to? How do they get the qualifications? That was one struggle too. When you apply for jobs, how do you know you’re qualified? That’s a very difficult step for someone who’s coming from an urban area who’s not really getting much support in certain aspects of your life.

What is it that those people lack? Is it not that they lack some fundamental skill or ability to learn?

“That’s where I see Year Up as amazing — it’s like a glue stick, you know? We’re gluing those people to those jobs…”

Definitely not the ability to learn.

None of them?

I don’t think so. Everyone has that ability, especially the people that I know, especially the people that I put in that 50 and 55 percent. I know for sure they have the ability. There’s definitely a lack of skill there. How can you get that training? That’s where I see Year Up as amazing — it’s like a glue stick, you know? We’re gluing those people to those jobs — we’re giving them that training and the skills that they need to get there.

Stephanie Pinto interns at State Street as a pricing specialist. NewsHour still image.

Stephanie Pinto interns at State Street as a pricing specialist. NewsHour still image.

You talked earlier about having a serious lack of confidence?

Oh yeah. When you’re not confident in your work, how well do you do your work? How much effort do you put into your work?

Why don’t you put in the effort?

When you feel like you have no ability to make it better, or even if you don’t think that, if you think your work is mediocre and that it doesn’t stand out, how hard are you really going to apply yourself to that? And it’s a psychology type of thing: some people, if there’s no confidence in their work, they’re not willing to go above and beyond for it, because they know that that’s all they can offer, just that mediocre work. And some people just need that push to let them know that they have that ability. Don’t worry about this weakness; use that strength to really demonstrate what you can offer to these people. I was focusing too much on my weaknesses, and I was wasting time; my grades were going down and I wasn’t really focusing.

To start an essay for me takes ages. And I was taking psychology classes — there’s a lot of writing involved. When you sit in front of that computer and you’re just like, “I don’t know how I’m gonna start this,” then you start it, this doesn’t sound too well, then you have your roommates re-reading it and you’re like, “No, this doesn’t sound too good,” and then you go back and go back, and so by the time your deadline approaches, you’re submitting a piece of work that you probably edited 15 times but it doesn’t really make much sense. And then if you get a mediocre, average grade, that in itself makes you think, “Oh wow, I guess I’m not doing that bad,” and then you don’t really apply yourself anymore. I just didn’t want to do it. I was at the point of giving up.

But most of us think of somebody who can speak in front of a group of people as very confident.

Well, at that point, I really didn’t know what I was gonna be, what I wanted, what my strengths were. I didn’t know at all.

You thought talking in front of a group of people was a weakness not a strength?

Yeah. Everyone told me, “You just talk too much,” and I didn’t know what I could do as a job or what employer would want to hire me.

So what are you doing now?

I work part-time, here, at State Street as a pricing specialist. I am finally finishing my associate degree in management at Bunker Hill Community College, and I have applied to Northeastern’s College of Special Studies.

What do you imagine yourself being?

Well, I like to try not to think that far ahead, but I have this one thing in my head that gets me every time. It was the reason why I chose management instead of finance because there’s not a lot of great managers out there, and I think that can change; I can be one of those people. So I definitely see myself managing people — in what sector, I don’t know, maybe a future CEO. We can leave that up in the clouds.

Would you have ever said something like this before Year Up?

Oh no. I thought I’d be a counselor at a high school — talk to some people, help them so they don’t end up like me at that point, struggling. But why do I have to settle for that? I could still do that same thing, help people, but as a manager, I could also own my own company, own my own brand, do something larger than that. Why think so small? I could think so much larger than that.