Oliver Phan knows firsthand the power of education. A Vietnamese refugee, Phan and his family moved to Northeast Minneapolis when he was just 8 years old.
“Being a refugee, I started from the bottom,” Phan said. “You have a lot of social challenges, things that pull you back. Getting a great education will get you out of that cycle.”
Now a widely respected nephrologist with InterMed Consultants, Phan broke through a long list of obstacles to secure the education that he so strongly believes in. It’s a gift he’s currently fighting to give to others.
Phan is a member of the Dougherty Family College Advisory Board, a group of community leaders dedicated to supporting the two-year college at the University of St. Thomas.
“I didn’t want to just donate money and forget about it,” Phan said. “I wanted to get more involved and help create change, to see the program succeed.”
The DFC Advisory Board meets regularly throughout the year, but their support of the college goes far beyond their official schedule. For this group, they are ever aware that they are building something bigger.
“You need a community to raise a child, and DFC is trying to become just that,” Phan said.
Dougherty Family College is designed to help ensure the success of underserved students who may be the first in their family to attend college. Providing intensive, wraparound education services, DFC works to shape promising students who may not succeed at more traditional higher education offerings.
It was that mission that inspired Brad von Bank, a fellow advisory board member, to get involved when the college was announced in 2016.
“Knowing the economic realities of many of the students that ultimately go to DFC, when they think of St. Thomas, they don’t think it’s realistic. But that’s the beauty of DFC – it’s very realistic,” von Bank said. “There is a need to bridge that awareness gap.”
The co-founder of Rêve Consulting, von Bank has long been a leader in the Twin Cities business community. But it’s his work at Rêve Academy, a nonprofit focused on connecting underserved students to digital careers, where von Bank has experience championing overlooked talent. On the DFC Advisory Board, he’s married the two worlds.
“DFC is kind of a great little secret that I wanted more and more high school students to be aware of as an option,” von Bank said. “I felt like as a member of the board I could help leverage relationships and insights to create greater pathways for those students.”
As the awareness gap around DFC is slowly chipped away, von Bank believes more scholars will take advantage of its unique opportunities.
“My hope is that those students who never would have dreamt that they could have this type of opportunity … view DFC as their first choice in pursuing higher education,” von Bank said.
Advisory Board members bring a variety of life experiences to their work. Among their ranks are doctors, business leaders, and even a math specialist. Some give financial support or thought leadership. But all believe in the personal mission behind the scholars themselves.
“They just blossom these scholars,” Sheila Juran said, community leader and vice chair of the Advisory Board. “It’s amazing how much they grow when they realize what lies within, and when that talent is nourished.”
Juran has supplemented her time on the board, serving as a mentor to scholars. She says it’s all part a goal to truly immerse scholars in a cocoon of community support.
“I wouldn't say I offer advice … I offer a listening ear, and maybe point out some options that the mentee can look at,” Juran said. “Many of these scholars are first-generation college students, and so they just kind of need someone to bounce things off of because the parents don't always have the answers.”
As the Advisory Board looks to expand its community network, Juran points to the results she’s seen with her own eyes.
“It is money well spent. It is time well spent. It is worth every dime and every moment, because there's so much more that comes out of this than you'll ever dream of,” Juran said.
Dean Buffy Smith has worked with the Advisory Board on dozens of initiatives since the college’s debut. She believes that for DFC to truly achieve its mission, the college must be built on pillars of community support.
“We want to be known as a college that is built with the communities we serve. We are nurturing one authentic relationship at a time by connecting with elders and other community leaders who have influence on our scholars’ lives,” Smith said.
As DFC looks to grow its enrollment and overcome future challenges, Smith expects the Advisory Board to play a key role.
“We have very bold strategic and fundraising goals,” Smith said. “The relationships they have built, and the organizational knowledge they have about the Minnesota landscape, are invaluable.”
Board members hope those bold goals lead to real-world solutions.
“We have many Fortune 500 companies here in Minnesota, but we still have some of the biggest education gaps in the country,” Dexter Davis said, fellow board member and vice president for global diversity, equity and inclusion at Ecolab. “This college is one way from an academic perspective where you really can provide an opportunity.”
An anonymous $10 million gift to DFC this fall aims to spur a season of giving. Board members are looking to other donors to raise a matching $10 million, and in the process make higher education more attainable for all.
“Not everybody has the means to go to college, or even believes that college will happen for them,” Davis said. “DFC opens a lot of ideas and doors for people to have that vision.”
That vision will eventually include a new Associate of Arts Pre-STEM concentration degree track, in addition to the liberal arts degree already offered. It’s just one of the ideas championed by the board to take DFC into the future.
“It's just good when you sit in a room with 20 people to bounce ideas off each other,” Carol Frey Wolfe said, chair of the DFC Advisory Board. “DFC is still in its infancy, so the fact that you get a lot of different minds in a room, and the good ideas spring from that.”
Wolfe is director of the Frey Foundation founded by her parents Gene and Mary Frey. She’s excited to extend that legacy at DFC.
“It is a new future, and it’s just a matter of time before people begin giving DFC the credit it’s due,” Wolfe said. “Soon people will start recognizing that DFC name and see it as a hallmark of St. Thomas … a spotlight, for how we can all do better.”