Liam James Doyle
Students pose for a group photo and celebrate their graduation following the Dougherty Family College commencement ceremony.

Turning Dreams into Reality

First alumni of Dougherty Family College earn bachelor’s degrees.

Forever bonded by a shared achievement, newly inducted alumni Sahra Mohamud, Brenda Saucedo and Krystal Blas Rodriguez have a lot to celebrate.

Yes, it was a welcome accomplishment when the three first-generation college students graduated from St. Thomas this spring, as it was for every one of the more than 1,400 of their undergraduate peers who emerged from the pandemic with a St. Thomas diploma in hand. Yet, these young women share another milestone. They are among the first 12 alumni from the inaugural Dougherty Family College (DFC) class to obtain a bachelor’s degree since the two-year, Minneapolis-based college opened its doors in 2017.

Flashing bright smiles, they each beamed recounting how DFC faculty and staff supported their educational goals, dished life lessons, and provided guidance that eased the scholars’ transition from a smaller class size at DFC to the larger, bustling St. Paul campus.

“Even if you’re in a space where you feel like you don’t belong, you do belong there,” is one nugget from a DFC professor that resonated with Rodriguez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

“That [reassurance] helped me throughout the last two years of my educational career at St. Thomas,” she said. “Some of the professors at DFC, even if I haven’t talked to them in a while, they would be like friends now.”

Mohamud navigated by tapping her DFC “go-to” person. “After we came to St. Thomas, I was lost because it was a big school,” she said. “But I connected with Katia [Colón-Holmers] from DFC. She helped me with resources, an internship, my major and how to sign up for classes. She knew everybody and she guided me to the right people.”

DFC is segmented by cohorts, allowing students to bond with peers as well as staff and faculty, said Buffy Smith, interim dean of the Dougherty Family College. The scholars’ reflections on their time enrolled in the program support that sentiment.

“My freshman year, there was an incident where I ended up in Buffy’s class crying,” Saucedo said. “She taught me how to say positive affirmations to myself, and every once in a while, I’ll tell myself positive affirmations and just see things in a better light.”

Leaders in the making

“These graduates have demonstrated strong commitment and determination to achieve their educational goals while navigating the pandemic and other life challenges,” Smith said. “We celebrate and honor their resolve to never give up.”

DFC is a St. Thomas initiative that Smith describes as “a mission equity-driven college geared to set traditionally underrepresented students on a path to earn a four-year degree.”

Many DFC scholars are first-generation college students and students of color, with high financial need. In fact, 95% of the DFC student body identify as being BIPOC and 73% of them are the first people in their families to go to college. More than half of the DFC students paid only $1,030 out of pocket for tuition and fees for an entire academic year. This support doesn’t come cheap: DFC has a 10-year fundraising goal of $30 million.

“Making higher education affordable is racial justice,” said Kathy Dougherty, founding co-benefactor and namesake of the college with her husband Mike, who sits on the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. “I know they will go out and make a difference in our world. I have dreams they will be leaders.”

So far, 58% of DFC graduates from 2019 and 2020 – its first and second classes – continued on with their studies. A dedicated 11 of them graduated this spring and summer from St. Thomas and another finished at Metro State University. Approximately 20 others are on a five-year plan and positioned to graduate in 2022.

Buffy Smith, associate dean, leads a discussion during a Dougherty Family College orientation class in Opus Hall in Minneapolis on August 22, 2017. Photo by Mark Brown.

Smith said she and her team are extremely proud of the DFC alumni who graduated this spring and summer in four years. “We eagerly wait to see the ways in which our DFC graduates will change our society and create a more just and equitable world.”

Opening doors

Mohamud, who majored in digital media arts, credits her DFC internships for setting her on a career path by elevating her interests in social media and photography. “I really want to work with an organization doing public relations and videography,” she said.

Ten out of 12 graduating seniors had internships when they were at DFC. They were with U.S. Bank, 3M, Hubbard Broadcasting, Ryan Companies, Padilla, Delta Air Lines, Dougherty Financial, Catholic Schools Center of Excellence, Rêve Academy and Wildflower Schools.

In addition to the corporate mentors, DFC students are surrounded by people who support them before they even get to college, including family members, counselors, teachers and nonprofit organizations.

Thanks to her high school guidance counselor, Mohamud found her way to St. Thomas. She had only been in the U.S. less than a year – arriving with her family from Kenya in 2016 – when she enrolled in 12th grade and soon had to make decisions about attending college.

“Everything was overwhelming,” Mohamud said. “My counselor guided me when I was anxious all the time.”

Mohamud had applied to a mix of state universities, community colleges and private schools – nine in all. St. Thomas originally didn’t make the list.

“I didn’t know if I could afford St. Thomas,” she said. Then one day, driving on their way to tour a different school,
her counselor gestured toward St. Thomas. “I know it’s expensive to go here,” Mohamud recalled him saying, “but they’re starting a program for people like you who can’t afford the full tuition.”

The next day, Mohamud applied to the Dougherty Family College.

“I was a little skeptical, but he knew it was going to open doors for me after I got my two-year degree, and so I went for it and it was something that I could afford,” said Mohamud.

Discovering possibilities

When Saucedo was five years old, she and her family emigrated from the rural area of Durango, Mexico. She said she used to neglect her homework when she was younger because “I didn’t have any hopes of being anything.” In May, she graduated with a family studies major and social work minor. “Being the first in my entire family to get a college education in the United States is super exciting.”

Along with her parents and DFC, she thanks the nonprofit College Possible, which helps diverse students find pathways to higher education.

“It was my College Possible coach in my senior year of high school who told me about DFC,” said Saucedo, who attended Washington Technology Magnet School in east St. Paul. “I’ve always been that child where people say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ I met with her every Tuesday and Thursday after school, applying to colleges and applying for scholarships. I thought it was like a joke to be a part of this program because my parents didn’t have any money, not even a dollar in their bank account for me to go to college. I’d be down in the dumps because though the name is ‘college possible’ I was just like ‘It’s not going to happen for me.’” 

But her coach was always in her corner.

“She reassured me that anything is possible for anybody,” Saucedo said. “If she hadn’t told me about DFC, I really would not have committed to any college just because of the money. I really don’t know what I would’ve done because I had no plan. Now I have an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree and hopefully in a few years, I’ll have a master’s degree.”

Additional reporting by Emilie Dozer ’21.

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