A step toward a career path: STEP-UP jobs program connects young people with internships, experience

Marissa Abara headshotWHILE LIVING IN ETHIOPIA several years ago, Lensa Gudeta’s brother had a heart issue that made it difficult for him to breathe.

Due to a lack of resources in her home country, she said, her family had to travel all the way to India so her brother could have surgery.

This was when Gudeta knew she wanted to become a surgeon.

“I want to go back to Ethiopia and help people like my brother,” said Gudeta, 17, who attends Minneapolis South High School.

Gudeta is now an intern at Hennepin County Medical Center, an internship she received through a Minneapolis program that helps several hundred local young people gain career experience and workforce training before enrolling in college.

Lensa Gudeta, 17, is a Minneapolis South High School student who interns at Hennepin County Medical Center, a position she received through STEP-UP, a jobs program for young Minneapolis people. Gudeta hopes to become a surgeon, she says. (Photo by Marissa Abara, ThreeSixty Journalism)

STEP-UP Achieve, part of the City of Minneapolis’ STEP-UP program, is a summer jobs program directed by AchieveMpls, a nonprofit partner of the Minneapolis Public Schools district that helps students become college- and career-ready.

One of the country’s premiere youth employment programs, according to the program’s website, STEP-UP Achieve matches students such as Gudeta with high-quality paid summer internships in 160 local businesses, nonprofits and other agencies.

“STEP-UP has helped me get this internship and it has helped me with gaining more experience and getting more money to save for college,” Gudeta said. “It has also helped me determine what I want for my career.”

Since its founding in 2004, 17,000 to 20,000 students have successfully gone through STEP-UP, according to Matthew Vue, a STEP-UP program associate. STEP-UP Achieve places 800 Minneapolis youth in internships per year and more than 4,000 students apply every year.

STEP-UP Achieve gives internship opportunities to urban students ages 16-21, providing experience in their careers of interest. STEP-UP’s other program, Discover, is geared toward 14- and 15-year-olds. Students’ households must meet certain income guidelines for students to be eligible to apply.

Vue, a former STEP-UP participant and a recent college graduate, describes the program as an outlet for students to explore their interests, to challenge themselves and to enhance their skills.

Matthew Vue, a program associate at STEP-UP Achieve and a former STEP-UP participant (Marissa Abara/ThreeSixty Journalism)

“(STEP-UP) not only enhances their work life and academic life,” Vue said, “it gives them overall life skills in general of how to interact with folks in your community, knowing business etiquettes, time management and how to navigate the Cities. Just overall life skills.”

STEP-UP has five career pipelines that students can choose: financial services, health, legal services, outdoors and STEM. Students who are admitted into the program go through work readiness training, which includes creating a strong resume, practicing through mock interviews and learning how to communicate professionally. Based on their skills and interest, and the needs of the employer, students will be matched up with jobs, according to STEP-UP’s website.

On top of earning up to $2,000 in their internship, students get the chance to work with mentors, advance their career opportunities and network with professionals.


Felicia Johnson, who was in the program in 2008 and 2009, describes STEP-UP as an amazing experience that still impacts her today. She first heard about the program when program leaders came to her sophomore history class.

Felicia Johnson poses for a photo with former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, whose office she used to intern at through STEP-UP, during the 2014 Annual Partner Breakfast. (Photo courtesy of ACHIEVEMPLS)

“… I think that for everyone at that time, the most interesting aspect of the program was that you could have a paid internship at that age,” said Johnson, 22. “So that’s how I heard about the program. And my experience with it was better than I could ever imagine, and, I mean, it still affects me to this day, how great of an experience I had.”

Johnson held a STEP-UP internship at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, an insurance company, her first year. Her second year with the program, in 2009, she worked in then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office.

“I had the greatest experience,” said Johnson, who took calls, went to press conferences, scheduled meetings and more during her time at the mayor’s office.

Using the networking skills she says she’s learned from STEP-UP, Johnson is now working as a program associate for a study abroad program in Uppsala, Sweden. Her work includes scheduling trips and planning activities for students.

“In a couple weeks, we’re going to go up to the north of Sweden and go dogsledding and to an ice hotel,” Johnson said over the phone from Sweden in the fall.

Johnson eventually plans to return from Sweden. And she has high hopes. The Macalester College graduate is looking at going to graduate school to study economics.

“After that, I want to move back to Minneapolis,” she said, “and I think it would be really awesome if I could have the opportunity to run for mayor.”


After her STEP-UP internship at Hennepin County Medical Center, Gudeta was hired by the hospital to stay on as an intern during the school year. She also has spent the past three years volunteering at the medical center.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, Gudeta works at the information desk, where she assists people, makes badges for visitors and delivers flowers to patients. She also has other duties at the hospital. She works three times per week and volunteers twice per week.

Gudeta didn’t know much English when she first arrived in Minneapolis from Ethiopia three years ago. Since then, she said, working at the hospital has helped improve her English and her confidence. It also has helped her in school, she said.

“I spend more time than I used to on homework,” Gudeta said, “because I know that to be a doctor, you have to work hard in school.”