Getting out of the comfort zone - together

UNICEF’s UPSHIFT programme empowers young migrants and Italians through entrepreneurship. Yet, some participants have seen growth in unexpected ways.

Maxime Le Lijour, Communications Intern, UNICEF ECARO
Nicole, Elena, and Zaira - UPSHIFT Italy
28 July 2021

UPSHIFT: Out of Your Comfort Zone

“At the beginning, I felt a bit lost; but the day after I already started to understand what we needed to do. From then, I began to think about some possible ideas for the project, and the more we moved forward, the more I felt as if I were part of this project”.

These are the words of Alessandro, 17 years old, from Milan. Last February, his school decided to participate in UPSHIFT, the programme for entrepreneurial and 21st century skills-building, implemented in Italy by UNICEF and Junior Achievement Italy.

UPSHIFT in Italy, carried out in the framework of phase III of the preparatory action for the European Child Guarantee, responds to the lack of opportunities and chances faced by adolescents from disadvantaged background, such as adolescents with migration backgrounds or in precarious family situations, so they can reach their full potential. The programme supports young people in the identification of local challenges and the conception of innovative and sustainable solutions in the form of products or services with social impact, all while teaching them the skills they will need for their transition into the world of work.

Alessandro, UPSHIFT Italy
Alessandro, 17


“This was a completely new experience, something that has never happened to me before.”

After graduating, Alessandro wants to go to university, and study to become a physiotherapist, as the field reconciles his love for sports and his will to support people in need.

“For me, offering a service means helping others. I don’t know if I will be able to become a physiotherapist, but I do want to help others.”

Alessandro’s motivation to pursue his ambition is not too different from that of Nicole – a 17-year-old girl that moved to Italy from El Salvador with her family when she was only two years old. “I would like to study psychology, possibly to work with children,” she says. She’s hoping to go to university in the United States or South Korea; two places that have always fascinated her.

She shares an admiration for other cultures with Zaira, 18 years old, born and raised in Cinisello Balsamo, a small city in the hinterland of Milan. “In high school, I studied French and Chinese: I love languages. I would like to study communications, especially to use it as a tool to understand others and help them.”

The Challenge of Working Together

Aside for a common empathy towards others, Alessandro, Nicole, and Zaira share something else: on their first day in UPSHIFT, they did not expect that the experience would have such a large impact on them. Nicole and Zaira agree on something: their biggest challenge was to learn how to work with their teams – but in very different ways.

“During the first days, I did not really voice my opinions too much: I just accepted the ideas of others without proposing any of my own. I was a bit scared of saying something stupid and being judged for it — but then I understood that I needed to throw myself in, because there are no stupid ideas.”

"I feel as if now I am a different person from the one that started."


Zaira, on the other hand, found herself in the opposite situation. “My team wasn’t very involved, so I took on the responsibility of leading the group”. The most important skill she acquired through UPSHIFT, she says, is the capability to work in teams and motivate others to get involved in the tasks at hand. “I just tried to create some dialogue,” and she was very effective at it. As their project, Zaira’s team designed a blog where people can connect to seek help in times of need. The idea was inspired by her own experience: “I have been doing theatre for five years now, and with COVID-19 this important part of my life went missing. That was the place where I used to express myself, so I thought about this blog as a place where young people can have a voice and be heard.”

The ability of children and adolescents to react to the challenges they face is no surprise, and the example of Zaira shows how empowerment can help nurturing and propelling such strong will for positive change. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this drive for change as shown by the The Future We Want Manifesto, a ten-point agenda defined by adolescents on the future of Italy after the end of the health emergency. These same issues were the starting point for the definition of the Innovation camps challenges that UPSHIFT participants were asked to resolve through the identification of innovative solutions.

Adolescents want change, and they are not afraid of being the ones doing the dirty work. And sometimes, change starts from the classroom, by reimagining those educational paths that have such great impact on their lives. But to make change happen, adolescents need to work together as a team.


An Unexpected Learning

Elena is a professor at Alessandro, Nicole, and Zaira’s school, and she knows how important working together is: “The most important skill my students learned is teamwork, as well as how to involve others and respect their opinions.” She says that all students learned how to use their own skills and individuality to contribute to the project they were working on. For this reason, she also believes that one of UPSHIFT’s strengths is its multiculturalism, as individual differences between students, she thinks, made the teams stronger. “UPSHIFT had an impact on their ability to make themselves heard, to express their opinions, and to listen to the ideas of their teammates.”

What Elena cared the most about was for UPSHIFT to be a positive experience for her students, and she was very surprised of the outcome. “The students challenged themselves and created something of their own,” she says. “Now we are thinking about creating a challenge in the school so they could present their ideas again and have the best ones win a prize.”

Alessandro, Nicole, Zaira, and Elena were all happy to have participated to UPSHIFT. Although UPSHIFT is a programme on entrepreneurship – and indeed, they were all excited to have learned how to turn ideas into concrete projects – the most important thing they brought home with them is the ability to be part of a team and work with others to achieve a common goal.

“Were you also this lucky when you were younger? I mean, did you also have the occasion to participate to a project like this one?” asks Alessandro at the end of the interview. “Yes, I did something similar in university” – I reply. “Then we were both very lucky,” he concludes.