‘I lived in the Siren’s Eye’: Nearly 470 Starbucks partners will graduate from ASU

By Bonnie Rochman / Starbucks Newsroom

When Kimberly McAtee’s manager pulled her aside in the back room in 2014 to tell her that Starbucks was going to pay for its partners to attend college, McAtee’s eyes welled up at what sounded like an unbelievable opportunity. For the first time in a long time, she felt a spark of optimism amid what had been a dark stretch. “It was like winning the lottery,” said McAtee, who was in a rough place at the time.

She was living alone in a trailer on land owned by her husband’s parents north of Sacramento, Calif. She and her husband had separated because he was deep in the clutch of drugs. She had been working as a Starbucks barista since 2009, and though she felt certain that education was the answer to a more secure future, she had dropped out of community college when she could no longer afford books and classes.

“The future looked bleak,” said McAtee, who is 30. “I had no direction. College was not something that was going to happen for me.”

Then, the heads-up from her manager provided “a little light of hope.”

But McAtee was skeptical at first. She was worried that some kind of loophole would make her ineligible to participate in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP), a unique partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University in which Starbucks pays full tuition for all eligible part- and full-time partners to earn a degree through ASU’s online program. It sounded too good to be true. But McAtee’s manager encouraged her to apply. She was admitted and began her studies in the first semester that SCAP was offered.

Now, four years later, she is preparing to graduate in May, joining the more than 1,750 partners who will have earned diplomas since the first three partners got their degrees in 2015. More than 10,000 partners throughout the U.S. are taking advantage of SCAP and working toward their degrees.

After her Starbucks shift ended, she did her homework in the parking lot

It wasn’t easy for McAtee. She didn’t have Wi-Fi in her trailer so she would stay after her shift ended at Starbucks to use the Internet connection. When the store closed, she would park her car as close to the building as possible and do her homework in the darkened parking lot, nestled in a warm coat to avoid turning on the ignition and burning gas she couldn’t afford. “Starbucks provided for me,” said McAtee. “My job, a free meal and drinks every day, schooling and Internet. I lived in the Siren’s eye.”

McAtee studied hard in her Organizational Studies major and things began to turn around. Her husband returned from rehab and they rented a small apartment together. She got an internship at a tree care company that dispatches arborists to plant trees and remove diseased ones. She will graduate with honors. In August, she and her husband are expecting their first child.

Her internship turned into a job offer as a scheduling and route coordinator, where she’ll use the organizational skills she learned in college and the customer service skills she honed behind the bar at Starbucks. Her last day at Starbucks is May 8, the day after graduation, at which time her internship will convert to a full-time job. There is no requirement to stay at Starbucks once a partner has participated in SCAP.

“I have a very clear picture of what I want my future to be and how I can make it happen,” McAtee said. “It wouldn’t have happened without Starbucks and ASU.”

SCAP continues to grow, attracting partners who want to earn their degree

Starbucks is expecting nearly 470 partners from 40 states to graduate on May 7. Starbucks leadership including coo Roz Brewer and chief partner officer Lucy Helm will attend the graduation ceremony and participate in a partner and family Open Forum, an interactive give-and-take between employees and company officials expected to attract more than 600 partners and family members.

Two partners won a company-paid trip to Arizona to attend graduation with a guest through the Throw Your Cap contest, which invites upcoming graduates to share their SCAP journey in a short essay or video. All graduating partners will be feted at their stores with “Graduation in a box” kits that contain a custom SCAP Grad apron, an ASU graduation cap and an ASU / Starbucks co-branded tassel. More than 60 percent of company-owned stores have at least one partner enrolled in SCAP.

“It is so exciting to see how the program has grown in such a short time,” said SCAP director Mary Dixon. “The stories of these partners’ journey — and how their families, customers and fellow partners have supported them along the way — are truly remarkable.”

Much of the growth of the SCAP program can be traced to partners such as Fidel Igama and Marii Engelman, both of whom have recruited other partners to follow in their footsteps and enroll in SCAP. Igama, from Upland, Calif., and Engelman, from Newton, Mass., are graduating in May.

When Igama, 25, moved to California from the Philippines in 2012 in search of a better future, he was two semesters away from earning his degree in economics and psychology at the University of the Philippines.

But a job wasn’t easy to come by in the U.S. Employers wanted employment history, and his references, from an island nation thousands of miles away, weren’t easily contacted. Then he tried Starbucks, which seemed more willing to invest in Igama’s potential. A manager called his story “inspirational” and called him in for an interview. He started work a week later, three months after leaving the Philippines. “She said, ‘Welcome to the U.S., welcome to Starbucks,” recalled Igama, now a shift supervisor. “Without her believing in me, there would be no Fidel graduating right now.”

Partners encouraging partners: ‘Why don’t you try one class?’

Igama began studying Technological Entrepreneurship and Management at ASU in the fall of 2015. He posts liberally on social media about his studies, his homework and his grades (he’s not afraid to brag about his consistent Dean’s List status), which has prompted other partners to inquire about his SCAP experience. “I’m the new guy here, and I am taking advantage of the program and succeeding,” he tells them. “I keep pushing them. Even if they don’t ask me about it, I say, ‘Hey, why don’t you try one class?’”

Igama is a persuasive guy: He’s talked four other partners from his store into enrolling in SCAP. He’s also been named his store’s Partner of the Quarter three times and recently completed a company assessment to become a store manager.

Engelman shares Igama’s enthusiasm. She moved from Estonia to the Boston area in 2014 after marrying an American citizen she had met in 2011 as an exchange student. Once Engelman received her green card in 2015, she began working at a Teavana store in Newton, Mass. She is now a co-manager at a Starbucks in Wellesley.

Engelman enrolled in ASU in the summer of 2015 but was not yet eligible for free tuition because she had just begun at Teavana. (Partners are eligible for benefits, including SCAP, after three months of employment, provided they work at least 20 hours a week.) That didn’t stop her; she was so excited that she paid out of pocket for her first two classes: English 101 and 102. Then she officially enrolled in SCAP in fall 2015. “I was blown away by SCAP,” said Engelman, 26, who is graduating with a degree in Organizational Leadership.

At work, she asked each and every co-worker if they had finished college. Those who said no were badgered good-naturedly by Engelman; even her boss didn’t get a pass. She persuaded her boss at Teavana to enroll and she did the same with her district manager. “I told her, ‘Come on, girl, you can take one or two classes at a time and in a few years, you can have your degree.’ They are both in school now so I am very excited.”

For Engelman, the most rewarding aspect of her studies has been applying what she’s learned in her classes to her job. “The best part has been being able to take what I’m learning about developing myself as a leader and actually putting these skills into practice at work.”

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