By Ariele Vaccaro
Feel free to ask Michael Hall, director of Concordia University’s Design Your Future (DYF) program, to talk about some of the graduates he’s worked with, but be prepared to not get up for a while. The administrator’s pride shows in each story he tells about a student’s success after leaving the program. He keeps in touch with the graduates regularly.
It’s easy to see what he’s talking about, though, when you walk into the Midtown Campus on Capitol Dr. in Milwaukee.
Fall semester is in full swing for DYF students — some only two semesters away from becoming one of Hall’s success stories. On a Monday afternoon, the halls are bustling.
Two freshmen stand on a staircase, discussing study plans before running to class.
A few students talk to school administrators between Business Law I and Foundations of Education. Others take a breather in the break area.
There, they grab a snack and take a seat only a few steps away from their “bookstore”. It’s a normal day and a normal college.
But then again, it’s not.
That “bookstore”? It’s a room lined with shelves upon shelves of textbooks, but students don’t buy them. They borrow them for free. The break room? It’s only a stroll away from administrative offices. And those offices? Their doors are always open.
Students don’t need to make an appointment weeks in advance to meet with any of the school’s administrators.
And here, it’s no strange thing to chat with your program director before heading home to crack open your algebra book.
So, this isn’t your usual post-secondary school experience. Rather, it’s a fresh take on technical college by Concordia University called Design Your Future. The program allows Milwaukee students who might not have thought about college before high school graduation a chance to grow their education and expand their career options.
But according to DYF Program Director Michael Hall, it’s not just about getting the degree. It’s about gaining the kinds of knowledge and skill that promise a lucrative career or a path toward even more education.
When Hall took over as program director in 2012, he saw students graduating with degrees without guarantee of a job or further education afterward. He and Concordia administrators helped to formulate four-semester, two-year plans for each of the majors offered at DYF: business management, criminal justice, early childhood education, and liberal arts. In the event students fail a course, they aren’t completely thrown off track. Rather, they can complete the class at another Concordia campus, such as the new one on 1670 Miller Park Way, without having to halt their academic progress.
“There is no guessing. There is no, ‘I don’t know. What am i going to take?’,” said Hall.
Now, he feels graduates are “prepared for life after DYF.”
Though the school cannot boast public school rates, it still covers 40 percent of a DYF student’s tuition before they fill out their free application for federal students aid or FAFSA.
Hall’s commitment to watching students leave with functional degrees might have something to do with his background.
The military veteran worked in manufacturing when the field was still alive and kicking in Milwaukee.
Now, Hall is making progress on a doctoral degree from Walden University in leadership and organizational change.
He doesn’t do it all alone, though. Hall admits that he depends on DYF’s two talented, young twenty somethings, the program’s coordinators — Alea Cross and Nessah Jones. They keep in touch with current students and reach out to prospective ones, like 18-year-old Dawn Pope, to spark their interest in the program.
Pope was attending Milwaukee High School of the Arts when she first heard about DYF. Cross had reached out to her via College Possible — a nonprofit that connects graduating high school students with post-secondary institutions, streamlines the application process, and coaches them throughout college.
During her senior year, high school became stressful for Pope.
Though a degree was always in mind, she struggled to find time to research colleges while working and keeping up her grades.
Soon, graduation loomed over her, but she hadn’t made a decision on her next move. ”
When the time came, it was hectic,” said Pope.
Hall said that’s exactly the kind of situation that DYF is there to help with.
Now, Pope is a business management major aiming to graduate from DYF with a 4.0 grade point average. During the summer, she took DYF’s summer preparatory “bridge” program, which refreshes students’ understandings of math and English. She said the decision to jump right into the program after high school came naturally.
”When they tell you life starts, it does and it doesn’t wait on anybody,” said Pope. “So it wasn’t — it wouldn’t have been befitting to me to take a three-month break and then jump into it and not know what I’m doing.”
Doua Chang, 20, also took part in the bridge program this summer courses. The criminal justice major just transferred to the DYF program from Milwaukee Area Technical College.
“For me, this is like, my second chance. So I’m going to take advantage of it,” said Chang.
After graduation, she plans to go pursue a bachelor’s degree at the main campus in Mequon.
Concordia is encouraging DYF students to utilize all of the tools that main campus students have available to them, like the library and the gym.
The university is also inviting DYF students to take part in school functions and organizations. Last year, one DYF student joined student government. A number of DYF students have been on sports teams.
Next year, Sayveon Harvester, 19, plans to be one of those students. He played football while at Harold S. Vincent High School.
This year, the business management major wants to focus on academics at DYF, but he sees himself playing football alongside other Concordia Falcons during the 2016 football season.
“I feel like I’m getting the real college experience,” said Harvester, noting that he senses DYF might be a little stricter on its students than the typical university.
Back at the Midtown Shopping Center, there’s still opportunity to be had by students.
DYF hopes to send five of its pupils overseas to study abroad in either South Africa or the Czech Republic.
Another program, 1G, aims to help first generation college students secure internships and make contacts in their field.
According to Hall, DYF is graduating about half the students that it enrolls. He wants to see that rate skyrocket to about 80 percent.
As the program gains ground and becomes the community hub of functional college education that he envisions it to be, he sees that goal as entirely possible.