Neal St. Anthony
See more of the story

Brenda Hernandez, 22, a senior at the University of Minnesota, bumps into her dad once in awhile on campus.

Her father, a once-undocumented Mexican immigrant, became a U.S. citizen under the 1980s immigration reforms enacted by Congress and President Ronald Reagan. He works for a landscaping and snow removal company that does jobs for the university.

“My parents tell me that I’m their dream come true,” said Hernandez, blinking back tears of gratitude. “They so wanted me to go to college.”

Similarly, Cecilia Fung, daughter of working-class parents from China and Vietnam, is a grateful graduate of the university’s business school.

Fung, 24, now a technology consultant, works for West Monroe Partners of Minneapolis, traveling to clients around the country.

“We didn’t own a house until I was in seventh grade,” recalled Fung, whose parents went from working in restaurants to owning a modest operation. “That was a big deal.

“I was taught to work hard. And I like a challenge.”

Hernandez and Fung, who grew up in working-class ends of Lakeville and Eden Prairie, respectively, are part of the growing and more diverse workforce of the Twin Cities that will drive our economy forward as tens of thousands of baby boomers retire over the next decade. Including me.

This transition will transcend professions from preschool teachers to plumbers, printers and professors.

And both young women were apprehensive about attending school at the U, which boasts about 50,000 students across acres of sprawling buildings — and the accompanying bureaucracy.

They and over 400 other first-time and low-income college students at the U, who hail from north Minneapolis to Worthington, also credit a key mentoring program with guiding them through their successful college careers.

For more than a century, the on-campus University YMCA has focused on mentoring and leadership development targeted at first-generation students. Today, more than 50 percent of those students are people of color, compared to less than 20 percent for the university as a whole.

Many of their mentors are upperclassmen and graduates, such as Fung.

And many of the U students get work-study jobs through the YMCA program. They usually involve several hours a week mentoring low-income kids at Twin Cities public and charter schools through the YMCA’s Beacons program that provides after-school academic, sports and leadership development for about 4,000 Twin Cities kids in cooperation with the sponsoring schools and partner nonprofits.

“I am very privileged,” said Lia Yang, a U sophomore who was a beacon at Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High. “I didn’t feel low-income when I was young in school because I always had a change of outfits.

“My older siblings worked while the younger kids went to school and we got to participate in after-school activities. And I’ve tried to give back by working with youth as a volunteer and at the YMCA” on W. Broadway Avenue.

Meeting with these young women and others at a Y-sponsored career-networking event in February filled me with a lot of hope for the future.

I’ve been a YMCA member, with the exception of a few years, since I was a South Side teenager. And I know lots of kids now working as police officers, teachers and in business who benefited from YMCA mentoring programs.

The Twin Cities YMCA also sees this and similar school programs as a key ingredient in growing the local economy and spreading prosperity to a new generation of diverse skilled workers such as Hernandez, Fung and Yang.

This takes nothing away from those of means and the white majority. It helps make the pie bigger and faster.

Over the next generation, the Twin Cities’ population is expected to grow from 2.9 million to 3.7 million people, according to state demographers and Wilder Research. We also are getting older, thanks to us boomers, mostly white, in the workforce. And we will move from 25 percent diversity in the metropolitan area to 41 percent minorities over 25 years. In many careers, retirees are outpacing applicants. We need all hands on deck, learning and working.

Bottom line: It is not only the right thing to do, but in our economic interest to ensure that the fast-growing group of young minorities has the tools, the education, the hard and soft skills and the mentors, whether college kids or generous retirees, to drive the economy forward as construction workers, electricians, educators, technologists, marketers and health care professionals.

The state employment statistics of the past five years show this is starting to happen, thanks partly to innovative training programs at community colleges, nonprofits and in a growing number of schools. And this century-old YMCA program at the U, retooled slightly from time to time, is proving it’s still very relevant.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.