2015 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 1

Bootstraps to Big Success

By Jennifer Donovan

Michigan Tech earned high marks in a new ranking that measures how well universities contribute to solving the problem of economic disparity—but what does it mean for real people?

Social mobility. It sounds like one of those academic terms, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Except in the case of Brooke Harris '79, it signified a life-changing opportunity: a Michigan Tech education.

Harris's father, whose schooling ended after sixth grade, died when he was 42. Her mother, who had a seventh grade education and was visually impaired, moved from Montana to Chassell with her three young daughters. They lived in a one-bedroom house, making do on social security and a small veteran's pension. The girls slept in the attic. "By today's standards, it was very stark, but although we lived frugally, there was always enough food, clothing, other basics, and a supportive mother who wanted the best for us, including an education," Harris says.

"Mom really instilled in us that we had to go to school if we didn't want to end up like her."Brooke Harris

"Mom really instilled in us that we had to go to school if we didn't want to end up like her," she recalls. And all three sisters followed their mother's advice. Harris's sister Kriss works as a teacher in the Houghton schools and her sister Sharon is a licensed practical nurse. "I am so proud of them," says Harris.

There wasn't much to stimulate the transplanted Montana girl in school. Chassell Schools Superintendent Ed Huls noticed that she was getting bored and frustrated and offered to work with her one-on-one.

After spending an hour a day exploring her favorite subject—philosophy—with her, Huls told Harris, "You really should go to Tech." He offered to excuse her from high school classes so she could audit university courses. Michigan Tech also recognized her potential. "You don't have to audit," they told Harris. "If you pass your courses here, we'll give you college credit." She did, and Tech did.

The Chassell house where Brooke Harris was raised.
The Chassell house where Brooke Harris was raised.
The Chassell house as it looks today.
The Chassell house as it looks today.

Tuition at Michigan Tech was low in the mid- 70s, says Harris, "but nothing was affordable for my family." Harris, who left home at eighteen and put herself through Tech, took out loans, won scholarships, and did federal work-study. One place she worked was Communication Services, predecessor to University Marketing and Communications.

One day Harris came to work fuming about a misogynistic remark a Chassell councilman had made. "Well," said her editor, Bev Oldfield, never one to take a slight lightly, "are you going to stand there complaining, or are you going to do something about it? If you run for office in Chassell, I'll be your campaign manager."

With a $200 war chest, Harris and Oldfield mounted the student's campaign. And she won, the first woman to serve as Chassell Township clerk.

"That one, kind dare launched me into a career in government," Harris says of Oldfield's challenge.

From left: Sharon Yokie, Brooke Harris, Kriss Yokie, 1970s.
From left: Sharon Yokie, Brooke Harris, Kriss Yokie, 1970s.

After graduation from Tech, Harris worked as town clerk in Ironwood. She went on to work for developers of affordable housing and served as a consultant to NeighborWorks America, a non-profit that helps low-income people acquire and rehab homes of their own.

Now she's "retired" and living in Olympia, Wash., working actively as an international consultant. "Retirement sounds so dismal to me," she explains.

"My Dad made minimum wage, and my mother never worked outside our home," Harris points out. "I once thought, if I ever make $50,000 a year, I'll be rich. I broke that glass ceiling, and then I thought, if I ever make $100,000 a year, I'll really have done something. I did that too."

She swears one thing made all the rest possible: "That four-year degree from Michigan Tech."Brooke Harris

She swears one thing made all the rest possible: "that four-year degree from Michigan Tech."

Michigan Tech deliberately develops degrees that employers want, providing an education for the changing technological workplace. "Using census and employer survey data, USA Today made a list of the majors that are most likely to lead to the highest earnings for 2015 college graduates," says John Lehman, associate vice president for enrollment, marketing, and communications. Those majors are engineering, math and science, business, agriculture, and natural resources. "That list closely mirrors the degree offerings at Michigan Tech," Lehman points out.

Also, Tech students are hard workers at an institution known for its rigorous education, he says. As President Glenn Mroz recently told state legislators, "They know about bootstraps."

Kailey Feuerstein '15 certainly knows about bootstraps. She grew up in Grand Rapids, daughter of parents who both recently lost their jobs. "My parents were in the same situation as their parents were; they just didn't have the money to go to college," she says.

Kailey Feuerstein
Kailey Feuerstein

Her parents promised to help Feuerstein and her sister with their first two years of college, but she knew they couldn't afford to send her to a university, so she enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College.

There she heard about a program that helps economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students successfully transition to a university. The Michigan College and University Partnership (MiCUP) is a collaboration between Michigan Tech and three community colleges. Feuerstein applied—and didn't get in. But at the last minute, she got the call that changed her life: a space had opened in MiCUP

So she headed for Houghton and never looked back. In fact, she barely went back; in three years at Michigan Tech, Feuerstein has never gone home for the summer. Instead she stays on the campus she has come to love and works to help pay her next semester's bills.

There's almost nothing a Tech student can do that she hasn't done. She's been president and vice president of Keweenaw Pride, vice president of the Women's Leadership Council, and a resident assistant for the First Year Experience Hall, where 75 first-year students live. "I love them," she says. "It's fun to see them learning what it's like at college. I'm so proud of them for trying new things."

Feuerstein graduated in May, with her parents, relatives, and friends watching live via streaming video on a computer she set up for them at home. This summer, she'll stay to mentor a newgeneration of MiCUP transfer students, working as the MiCUP summer student coordinator. "MiCUP helped me so much," she says. "Now I can help them get started right."

"When I was applying for college, I was thinking, ‘I'll never get in.' Now I'm applying for grad school, and I know I'll get in."Kailey Feuerstein

"I can't believe how much I've changed in three years," Feuerstein reflects. "When I was applying for college, I was thinking, ‘I'll never get in.' Now I'm applying for grad school, and I know I'll get in."

Gifts Make the Difference

Michigan Tech is able to provide opportunities to students like Harris and Feurstein because of the support of our alumni. Make a gift, and make success possible for an outstanding Husky. Visit www.mtu.edu/giving.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.


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