A safe place to land

Photo: Dawson Community College

It started with a news story. A young woman from Billings, Montana, who had aged out of the foster system was given a car by a local Chevy dealership. In the news segment, she said she dreamed of going to college.

Rich Rowe was watching the news when it aired. Rowe and his wife had been foster parents. He knew firsthand how many barriers young people aging out of the system face. As a trustee at Dawson Community College (DCC), he saw an opportunity for the college to help.

Rowe texted DCC President Scott Mickelsen, wondering if there was a way to invite that young woman on the news to attend the college for free – or at least low-cost – with a scholarship. The college has residence halls, so she wouldn’t have to look for housing. It would be a good fit.

Mickelsen responded immediately that he’d look into it.

That young woman, it turned out, got a scholarship to attend a different college. But “that didn’t deter the wheels from turning,” Rowe said.

After some investigating, it was easy to see a need was there.

“We really quickly learned it wasn’t just a big city issue; it was a rural issue, too,” Mickelsen said. Something had to be done.

Small and mighty

DCC is a small college in a small town, with a full-time enrollment of about 320. The town of Glendive has no big box stores or chain restaurants nearby. Billings, the closest big city, is 230 miles away. Being small and rural often works to the college’s advantage – there’s less bureaucracy and more freedom to take risks, according to Rowe.

“We can swing for the fences,” Rowe said.

So the college was able to move fast on developing the Dawson Promise.

The program, which was announced in March, aims to provide a debt-free college education and support services to unaccompanied youths who are homeless or aging out of foster care. Program participants are identified through relationships with counselors, caretakers and other advocates. Students also can self-identify.

What participants receive is support from the start: help with financial aid paperwork, guidance through the admissions and enrollment process and mentorship. They also are provided year-round, on-campus housing that they can occupy as soon as they graduate from high school. They’re partnered with a host family, and provided with on- or off-campus employment.

When they leave the college, Promise students will have a portfolio to take to prospective employers or other postsecondary institutions. The portfolio includes letters of recommendation, transcripts and a credit history statement showing all school bills have been paid-in-full.

Leslie Weldon, the college’s vice president of advancement and human resources, has taken the lead on the program and is passionate about the good it can do.

“We want to make access and affordability real for students starting at a disadvantage,” Weldon said. She sees DCC as a “safe environment where these kids can land.”

Still learning

Because the program is still new, Weldon and others know there will be adjustments. Already, they have learned that extra onboarding is needed. Dawson Promise students also may need help learning how to pay bills, cook basic meals and more.

“We want to provide all the assistance they’ll need. We can’t yet visualize what all those needs will be,” Mickelsen said.

The college is working with the community and outside organizations to ensure students can access the resources they may need, whether financial, legal or emotional. Employers are partnering to provide work opportunities for Promise students. The college also is working on a busing partnership so new Promise students can get to DCC from other parts of Montana.

“We’ve got community buy-in,” Rowe said.

In terms of funding, the college is working with private donors and foundations.

“The beauty of this is you’re changing lives,” Mickelsen said. “It’s hard to say no to something like that.”

Looking forward, Mickelsen hopes to have 20 to 40 Dawson Promise students attending the college within the next three or four years. And not just Montana residents. The college is looking to attract students from outside the state, too.

For Rowe, that makes good business sense. Boosting enrollment numbers at DCC would be a win.

“If we don’t think outside the box to go after those outside the state, we’re not going to survive,” Rowe said. The college’s athletic programs draw in students from outside the region. With Dawson Promise, the college can draw in students for a new reason.

But more than that, it’s just the right thing to do, Rowe said.

“We can change the attitude of the establishment just by being kind,” he said.

“I think it’s great we’re reaching out with something new and innovative and giving people a new start in life,” Mickelsen said. “We’re a small college with big thoughts.”

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.