02/08/2013 04:01 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

39 Smiling Graduates, 11 Financial Partners, Dozens of Stories

There is something so amazingly "Yeah, I did it!" satisfying about clutching a diploma at a graduation. This holds true whether the achievement is the completion of high school, college, graduate school, or specialized training. When someone presents you with the piece of paper that bears your name and affirms your accomplishments, you are flying high.

One can easily see that pride, relief and confidence in the faces of JVSLA BankWork$ graduates. After spending three days a week for eight rigorous weeks learning all about cash handling, product sales and all the elements that prepare you for an entry-level career in banking, our graduates are grinning ear-to-ear when they get their certificates of completion.

Sure, a lot of them are nervous; they've got friends and family in the audience, and they know that an actual job interview with representatives of JVS' partnering banks awaits them immediately after the graduation ceremony. Those giant smiles -- as much as their resumes -- could be their calling card to a new job, a new life. In fact, when they introduce their graduates to the audience -- which always includes the finance industry recruiters who will be conducting the interviews later -- BankWork$ instructors Lisa Meadows, Maria Zuniga and Alese Pedro invariably refer to the qualities that sets their graduates apart.

"Diana's been working at Ross for six years. She got her job almost immediately when she came to this country," said Pedro, introducing graduate Diana Gharibian during the presentation honoring BankWork$ 32nd graduating class. "She was shopping at Ross and they said, 'You have a great smile, a great personality. Do you want to come work for us?' They actually offered her a job because they recognized that beautiful smile would translate to great customer service. Diana is fluent in Armenian and Farsi and she will be an asset to any bank that hires her."

In these introductions, the BankWork$ team highlights the graduate's skills: whether it's their determination to overcome tough odds, a college degree, multiple languages spoken, cash-handling skills, sales experience and, of course, a winning personality and great smile. By being accepted into the program -- and certainly by completing it -- our graduates are already marketing themselves successfully. But the BankWork$ staff tries to give them each a little extra endorsement in the send-off since their potential employers are listening attentively and taking notes.

In a way, the graduation must be a little bit bittersweet. Our most recent class -- which trained at The Expo Center near downtown LA and at ORT College in Van Nuys -- had 39 people, all of whom have become "like family" over the course of the eight-week course. We want to see all 39 of these new family members hired on the spot by our partnering financial institutions.

They may be smiling big at graduation, but many of those 39 graduates overcame some significant barriers to earn their certificates. We learn about their achievements, but also of setbacks: layoffs, long periods of unemployment, dead-end jobs and the challenge of being a single parent to young children, even homelessness.

"I was pretty much just getting by," says Stephen Gallego, a former employee of In 'N Out Burger who has put aside dreams of writing music to start a career in the banking industry. "I realized that life is a lot more difficult than just going to school and having a minimum wage job. I was applying for other jobs and people weren't guaranteeing me anything. Things were really tough and I needed to get the ball rolling."

Gallego, who was tabbed to deliver the graduation speech at the most recent graduation, said that his classmates had also experienced hardship in their journey to BankWork$. Although he has a Master's degree which he earned in his native Iran, Arvin Aloumian couldn't find work in information technology. Dan Nguyen spent seven years working at Macy's to put herself and five siblings through college. Her mother died six months after the family immigrated from Vietnam.

"It's been very hard for me working part-time and going to school," says Ngueyn, the oldest of her family. "This is exactly what I've been looking for."

"You hear incredible stories when you talk to classmates," says Gallego. "One student said she had two kids at home and she needed a real career to support them. Another gentleman told us he had $6 in his pocket for the next month and he's just hoping for the best. You hear everyone's story, and you can relate to what they're experiencing."

"We're all in this economy together," he adds. "We know we can be successful and we know we're not going to be complacent. We're going to take those extra steps to succeed."

Spoken like someone who, thanks to a unique training program, feels like he's ready to take on the world.