A diverse group of students comes along with diverse experiences that many will never understand. This is exactly what makes Dougherty Family College so special; the people teaching the students and helping them grow are diverse themselves, and they do understand.
Located at the University of St. Thomas Minneapolis campus is a two-year college to help high-financial-need students who yearn for a higher education obtain their associate degree. Dougherty Family College opened in fall 2017 and has all the benefits as the rest of the private university, but at an affordable price.
It is a rigorous program, but educational support and guidance is given through many resources and small class sizes with better connections to professors and other students. Today, 75% of graduated scholars are currently enrolled at a four-year college or have already earned a bachelor’s degree.
But a unique part of this program is this: 95% of DFC scholars are students of color and 80% of them are first-generation students. Furthermore, 100% of DFC scholars come with a different background and experience, which affects the way they learn. At a regular four-year program, this could make it hard to feel included and understood. Luckily, the staff at Dougherty Family College are just as unique as the students, and 50% of them identify as BIPOC – Black, Indigenous or other person of color.
“When you’re in the classroom, and you (can) see an instructor that reflects your lived experiences,” Dougherty Family College Dean Buffy Smith said, “that provides a sense of comfort that this person might understand a little bit, not your full story, but a little bit of what, at least, the history of the communities that you represent, have been through.”
Noah Gagner, a psychology professor of five years at Dougherty Family College, teaches mostly second-year students. He always makes sure to be open about his background and experiences so that the scholars feel comfortable doing the same. Gagner is a Native Alaskan who was adopted into a multiracial family, which, he says, shaped him and made him who he is today.
“We often talk about this idea of cultural sustaining pedagogy,” Gagner said. “I tend to think about it in terms of identity sustaining pedagogy. This idea of if we can understand ourselves, it allows us to connect to one another. The community allows us to navigate the unknown waters of higher education.”
Not only are these experiences reflected and understood by the staff, but they are also recognized through the curriculum and what is being taught. Culture, race, identity, sexual orientation and more are highlighted and celebrated in the coursework. Everyone deserves to be represented in what they are learning, and at Dougherty Family College, everyone is.
Textbooks and readings are carefully picked so that a wide range of different authors who also come from the same backgrounds students come from are represented. Gagner includes the book What Happened to You? by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey in his teaching, which is about trauma and resilience throughout one’s life and the histories of the communities they come from.
“For students, (the book) is a place to reflect and connect,” Gagner said. “To say, ‘This experience seems familiar.’ Then we can have conversations of what that’s about.”
Assignments are also catered to the unique experiences of the students, not just base level thinking. Associate Dean Sarah McCann was previously a professor for theology at DFC, and always was mindful when it came to assignments because many students hail from different religious backgrounds and relate differently to theology compared to others.
“I ask students to write a theological memoir,” McCann said. “Students talk to their families, they talk about their cultural experiences, the heroes within their tradition, how their moms or their aunts or their uncles brought them to the church or the mosque or the temple and what that means to them in the development of their own ethics and community celebrations.”
The young men and women who chose to go to Dougherty Family College express appreciation for the experience because of the opportunities it gave them, the great staff and the strong community that is so present.
“My experience at DFC has been wonderful,” said Hello Soe, a 2023 Dougherty Family College graduate who is now studying entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas. “It has taught me to be more than a student and to be a better person. It has also showed me that I have people around me and that I can count on them.”
“The thing I’m going to miss the most is the community that is made up of the amazing faculty and the students,” Marielena Chacon-Pacheco, another 2023 graduating student said. “My advice for incoming students is to take every opportunity that is handed to you and to just put yourself out there.”
Choosing Dougherty Family College guarantees an academic experience that is just as rich and fulfilling as any other, because of its diversity in both the staff and the scholars. It is a place full of acceptance, understanding and celebration of everyone’s unique differences.