First-year Cin Morris had known for years he wanted to connect with people in the music business, perhaps as a DJ. He loves the music and the prospect of fame.
So when Morris’ high school counselor told him about Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas, he was interested to find out whether it would be the right step toward that musical dream. When he learned how its corporate internship program would combine his classroom education with professional experience in communications, he was all in.
“I feel like every opportunity that you have, you have to build on yourself. So while I’m here I’m going to be focusing on building, building, building and becoming more well-rounded,” said Morris, who started interning with Hubbard Broadcasting last fall. He also has developed a newfound interest in law enforcement.
“The better person that I can become, the more doors that will open up for me, you know? I have more opportunities to come, so with the Dougherty Family College and the two years here, I’m just looking to pave that way,” Morris said. “I’m not looking for anything to be handed to me or given to me. I’m ready to work hard and go get what I want.”
The inaugural class
As President Julie Sullivan stood at the front of Schulze Hall auditorium on the St. Thomas Minneapolis campus last August, tears welled up in her eyes. She was looking out at Morris and his 106 classmates who make up Dougherty Family College’s inaugural class. Their presence on campus represents the realization of a vision, a dream long in the making for Sullivan and St. Thomas to offer a rigorous, affordable two-year college experience for students who face some of the many obstacles to accessing and succeeding within higher education.
“When I opened the door of that auditorium and saw all our students … and I saw the excitement and energy in that room, I was just flooded with emotion,” Sullivan said. “I felt excited, joyful. I felt grateful, but most of all I just teared up and said, ‘This is real. This is happening.’”
That reality has been almost surreal for Dougherty Family College student Kyle Mikesell, the first in his family to attend college. He’s interested in pursuing courses that appeal to his creative interests. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that he’s enjoying Treza Rosado’s English writing course, or that he painted a “DFC” mural in the college’s student lounge, which is now surrounded by the signatures of all 107 students.
“There are actually no words to describe how awesome it feels to be in the inaugural class,” Mikesell said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Unfortunately not enough students in Minnesota and the nation share Mikesell’s feeling of being part of a college class; the continuing, pervasive achievement gap has been well-documented and, in many ways, the data are daunting. According to a 2016 Minnesota Office of Higher Education report, white Minnesota students were far more likely than students of color to enroll in college and to graduate from college. Nationally the college participation rate for high-income families (80 percent) is 31 percentage points higher than for low-income families.
In the Dougherty Family College, St. Thomas has positioned itself as a pioneering model to help do something about this gap.
That model has several core characteristics: the college’s financial accessibility; rigorous academics that prepare students to make the jump to a four-year degree program at St. Thomas or elsewhere; high levels of academic support from faculty, staff and classmates within a cohort system; and the school’s corporate internship program.
“Every student deserves a chance, no matter where they come from,” said Alvin Abraham, dean and the Eugene and Mary Frey Endowed Chair at Dougherty Family College. “And being able to provide that, I believe, is perfectly aligned to the St. Thomas [mission], this idea of advancing the common good.”
Combating the achievement gap
Sullivan became president in July 2013 and as she learned what makes St. Thomas unique and strong, as well as the needs of the greater community, of which the university is part, several things soon became apparent.
“I realized we have some prosperity gaps in Minnesota and not everyone is realizing their full potential here,” Sullivan said. “I also realized there was a real workforce shortage in Minnesota. When you project forward, we have a number of people retiring and a need for more four-year graduates who are skilled professionals to be the leaders of this community.”
Despite the shrinking workforce, only one-third of young adults are obtaining four-year degrees needed for those emerging jobs. Those numbers are even lower for underserved populations, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. St. Thomas is no stranger to addressing these issues, as the school was founded to aid Minnesota’s immigrant population.
“This is so compatible with why Archbishop John Ireland founded St. Thomas,” Sullivan said. “He really founded St. Thomas because he had an immigrant community … and he wanted to build a university that would allow them to be the public intellectuals of their time. Lifting them up to be the leaders of Minnesota and of our country.
“We have the same opportunity. We all recognize that there is an educational gap, an economic gap in our state. … The way to [address] that is to get to know people, walk beside them, let them be part of finding the solution … and accompany them on that journey.”
Over the next several years, Sullivan and many others championed the idea to people in and around the St. Thomas community, including Mike and Kathy Dougherty. A longtime owner of a financial services firm, Mike is a 1966 alumnus and Board of Trustees member, and he and Kathy discussed Sullivan’s plan. One day in October 2016, though, the conversation was about their decision to financially support the university’s new venture.
“This is something we really believe in and it is a fit for us and it is a fit for our family,” Kathy said of their generous commitment to the college that now bears their name.
Many other contributions – including $5 million from Eugene and Mary Frey – have added to the Dougherty’s donations to help solidify the college’s model as sustainable outside main university funding.
“We all knew about the need, but the timing was perfect. It just touched a nerve in the community,” Kathy said. “People are behind the college; they want it to succeed.”
A solid foundation
The plans for that success are being carried out by a Dougherty Family College administration, faculty and staff perfectly suited for the challenges the school aims to help students overcome. Longtime St. Thomas faculty member Dr. Buffy Smith is associate dean of academics at Dougherty Family College. Sullivan said Smith was crucial in shaping the college’s full model. Smith helped establish best practices and found the right people to support the school’s mission.
“This group of faculty assembled by Julie, Alvin and Buffy, I would stack up with any faculty anywhere, in Minnesota, the Midwest and beyond,” Mike Dougherty said.
Each element of the college’s plan was developed with the goal of setting up students for success. That starts with the financial accessibility of college, which for many families is an overwhelming obstacle. Thanks to a targeted curriculum, existing facilities available on the Minneapolis campus and the generosity of donors, St. Thomas has kept costs to a minimum.
A school year costs $15,000 per student, but – with the help of Pell and state grants, and St. Thomas scholarships – requires as little as $1,000 contribution from students and their families with highest financial need.
The focused curriculum has the same rigor and requirements of all St. Thomas undergraduate coursework. Students earn an Associate of Arts degree, which is designed so they can seamlessly transition to a four-year institution.
“We know how game-changing it is for families that we provide that [pathway to a four-year degree],” Abraham said.
A support system for success
Students have an extensive support system with access to an adviser and a mentor; an alert and intervention process for follow-up on any falling academic performance; and a cohort model that puts students into groups of 25 or less, their “mini-family,” as first-year Xavier Abdullahi called it.
“It’s really great having people that check in on you and your professors know how you’re doing,” Abdullahi said, citing the value of the faculty’s mentoring role.
First-year Makda Araya said the students within each cohort – who share all the same classes – help hold each other accountable, and first-year Abukar Ahmed said the mix of strengths and weaknesses across each cohort means students can obtain guidance from classmates when they need it or provide it to others.
“It helps the teachers, too, because they have kind of figured out how to work with each cohort and what works best for that group,” first-year DeAmonte Block added. “It’s been a good experience.”
Students also have customized corporate internships where they get hands-on, professional experience once a week during the school year and full time during January and summer months. Kris Donnelly ’93 returned to St. Thomas to run Dougherty Family College’s corporate internship program after heading a similar program at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis, which is a Catholic college-preparatory school for students in urban communities with limited educational options.
“Continuing that mission at the higher-ed level was too much to pass up,” she said. “I’m immensely proud of St. Thomas for undertaking this and looking differently at what success in higher education means, and coming up with a really solid program. I’m thrilled to be part of the launch.”
“I’m very excited about the internship opportunities because I’m not sure what I want to do or major in yet, so being able to actually work somewhere along with learning about it in class is great,” said Cori Moore, a first-year student interested in building on her high school student government experience. “These are our stepping stones in changing the world, toward doing whatever it is we’re going to do.”
New school, true Tommies
The Dougherty Family College is immersed in the St. Thomas community, from its academic rigor to its inclusion in the student body.
“We were very intentional that the school would be part, and students would feel part, of the greater university,” Sullivan said. “The Dougherty Family College students are St. Thomas students and they are a part of our fabric and our community. They bring their own richness and gifts to our community,” she added. “I look forward to the relationships they form, not only with their own peers, but with students, faculty and staff across campus.”
From participating in March Through the Arches in the fall, to taking part in and forming clubs and student organizations around campus, Dougherty Family College students have taken quickly to life as Tommies.
Throughout the first semester, students wondered about the challenges and opportunities any first-year does: Will my classes be hard? How will I manage my time? And the bigger question: Do I want to survive or thrive in college?
Smith posed that question to students in their early days at Dougherty Family College, and Mikesell said his hand went up immediately.
“My expectation for myself and for everyone here is to thrive. It will help me do the best that I can knowing the DFC can help me through it,” he said.
Proof of that is visible every day as the college’s students, faculty and staff embark on this historic year together. For months now, Dougherty Family College Associate Dean of Students Doug Thompson has rallied that feeling around a single phrase that echoes across the campus’ classrooms and halls.
“I’m all – !” Thompson yells.
“– In!” comes the resounding response from students.
Alvin Abraham helps students keep their eyes on the prize
The founding dean of the Dougherty Family College wholeheartedly welcomed 107 inaugural students last fall. He knows what this opportunity means to them.
“A college degree is a game changer and can break the cycle of generational poverty in a family,” he said. “It’s vital that the Dougherty Family College has both a strong academic focus and the support for students to be successful, with the confidence and skills to eventually graduate with a four-year degree.
“You have to have your eyes on the prize and know what we’re working toward, and I think everyone on our team is really clear what those metrics are. Our students know and understand what they’re aiming for is that four-year degree at the end of the road, ultimately.”
Abraham is the Eugene and Mary Frey Endowed Chair of the Dougherty Family College. He came to St. Thomas from KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Minnesota college-preparatory public schools, where he served as executive director.
He started his career as an elementary educator with Teach for America and moved into education administration in two Texas school districts. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in political science from Texas A&M University and a master’s of educational administration from the University of Houston.