Program sparks college dreams, business careers for students of color

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What happens when hard work just isn’t enough? How does a student with a knack for numbers see a future as an accountant when she doesn’t know anybody who’s navigated that career path — or even what accounting actually is?

From her first day of kindergarten, Yesenia Velasquez knew she would have to work harder than the other kids. She started school without many advantages, save for wit and genuine grit.

Her parents had immigrated to the Yakima Valley from Jalisco, Mexico before she was born. To make a life in the United States, they worked hard at thankless jobs, from forging bricks to packing produce. But they wanted more for their three daughters.

“My parents taught me that education is the key to success,” says Velasquez. “That’s what made me an independent learner. I’ve always craved education.”

But no matter how much she learned or how well she did in school, college looked no less expensive or intimidating. Besides, what would she study? Growing up in a working-class Hispanic community, she saw most career possibilities as abstract at best. Maybe law or medicine? She had never even heard of accounting.

Then she discovered the Young Executives of Color (YEOC) Program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Yesenia Velasquez has returned to YEOC as a mentor. She brings a wealth of wisdom to high school students searching for their own futures.

A partnership between the Foster School and the professional services firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young), YEOC is a nine-month program that provides an introduction to business careers, professional development, college preparation and mentoring to some of the most promising high school students from underrepresented minority communities around the state. The UW’s pre-college program seeks to unlock potential, offer opportunity and expand prosperity for deserving students — regardless of where they ultimately pursue their degree.

For Velasquez, the YEOC program was the missing link that showed her how and where she could apply her talents. One Saturday each month throughout her senior year, she woke up at 4 a.m. to make the several-hour journey to Seattle, sometimes escorted by her family, sometimes alone on the bus. These treks were richly rewarded with practical information and profound inspiration.

“No matter the trouble to get there,” she says, “it was worth it.”

Hearing stories from each session’s featured speaker — senior executives who look like and come from the same backgrounds as the students — Velasquez began to visualize what she could become. Even the location stirred the soul.

Her first YEOC session was the first time she’d visited a college campus. “It was amazing,” she recalls, “walking into the giant atrium of PACCAR Hall and thinking, OK, this is possible. I can see myself here.”

For Yakima-born Yesenia Velasquez, the Young Executives of Color Program at the Foster School of Business opened the door to a promising future she never knew existed.

And here she is. She earned a spot at the UW and the Foster School, where she has flourished. In addition to serving in student leadership, presenting at a national case competition and studying abroad, Velasquez landed an internship at EY after her first year on campus. After rotating between the firm’s audit, advisory and tax practices for the past two summers, she is spending this summer as a national tax intern, working with some of EY’s largest clients.

“Yesenia has already proven herself to be smart, driven and hardworking,” says EY recruiter Katie Campbell. “We believe she can do anything she sets her mind to.”

Now an incoming senior at the UW with a clear path to success that’s unprecedented in her family, Velasquez has returned to YEOC as a mentor. She brings a wealth of wisdom to high school students searching for their own futures.

A student walks between Foster School of Business buildings on the University of Washington campus.

“Yesenia wants to follow those in front of her and help others behind her,” says Pamela Lacson, associate director of Foster’s Undergraduate Diversity Services. “This is what sets YEOC apart: having mentors who look like her, who provide real answers and real possibilities to young people who have the drive but lack the social capital that comes with a lineage of college education.”

“Every now and then, it hits me,” says Velasquez. “I’m in college. I work in a skyscraper. I’ve been to New York and San Francisco and Morocco — all of these things I could never have imagined when I was in middle school. No matter how hard I worked, I wouldn’t be where I am without YEOC.”


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