Bridging the Gap
by Jennifer Donovan
Helping community college students feel at home at Michigan Tech
Lori Muhlig was babysitting her foster mother's children while their mom attended class at Northern Michigan University when a radical idea struck the teenager. "I wonder if someday I could go to college," she thought.
As appealing as Muhlig found that idea, the Native American from Zeba—part of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community—also found it terrifying. She had grown up with a deep belief that higher education was an overwhelming, intimidating experience. "My family passed that fear down from generation to generation," she recalls.
After high school, Muhlig went to work at a local gas station, and before long she was its manager. She was also getting bored, and she wasn't looking forward to a future filled with more of the same, complete with low pay and no benefits.
So she started small and close to home, enrolling at Gogebic Community College. While there, she was invited to spend part of a summer trying on Michigan Tech, as a participant in the Michigan Colleges and Universities Partnerships (MICUP, or "my cup") program.
At Tech she met Christa Walck, a professor in the School of Business and Economics. MICUP students do internships with Michigan Tech faculty, and Walck chose Muhlig to conduct a case study on the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. "I thought it would be a good opportunity for her to do research on her own community and have it valued, not just by writing it up for a class, but by presenting it at a conference," Walck recalls. "I think it was a real eye-opener for Lori."
MICUP students also take a class during their summer experience. Knowing she needed computer skills, Muhlig chose a computer class. "I knew nothing about computers, didn't even know how to turn one on," she recalls.
Muhlig went to class faithfully, but the teacher might as well have been speaking Greek. Calling home in hysterics, Muhlig wept, "I'll never be able to do this." When she finally admitted to her teacher that she'd never been on a computer before, the stunned instructor said, "Why didn't you tell me?" "You didn't ask," Muhlig replied.
"I was in that computer lab until four o'clock in the morning night after night, but I did pass, and with Dr. Walck's encouragement, I began to believe that I could do university work."
The bond she established with Walck enabled Muhlig to take the leap and enroll at Tech. She took a class from Walck and went on to major in business. Muhlig is now coordinator of Native American outreach at Michigan Tech and codirector of MICUP, paying it forward to countless others what the program did for her.
Take Andy Publes, for example. From MICUP the Cuban immigrant not only gained the confidence to attend Michigan Tech, major in electrical engineering, and go on to score an engineering job with Caterpillar's Locomotive Systems, he met his future wife. Idaliza Gómez, a native of the Dominican Republic, and Publes started in MICUP as "friends" and continued dating after their return to Grand Rapids Community College to complete their associate degrees. Then they headed back to Houghton. Gómez graduated in biological sciences with a minor in biochemistry and is working on her teacher certification. She and Publes married last January.
It was hard to convince her parents to let her go to school so far away, Gómez says. The traditionally close family ties among Hispanics often are cited as a factor in their low college graduation rates. A study recently released by the Pew Hispanic Center found that fewer than half of 18-to-25-year-old Hispanics plan to earn a bachelor's degree, compared to morethan 60 percent of all people in that age group. And only about one in ten earn even an associate degree.
Moving to Houghton was a hard choice for Publes too, because his mother had just been allowed to immigrate from Cuba and join her son and his father in Grand Rapids a few months earlier. When he agreed to participate in MICUP, Publes says, he did so mostly to experience what it would be like to be at a university and live in a residence hall. "I thought it was a great university, but the location was a deal-breaker," he explains. "Then I got to Michigan Tech and fell in love with the school, the town, and the people. I loved the lifestyle and the classes."
Now that he's working in the engineering field, Publes calls coming to Tech "a great decision. I received the right tools to be an asset on the Caterpillar team, which has some of the best engineers from all over the world."
Michigan Tech's MICUP program works with students from Delta College, Grand Rapids Community College, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, and Wayne County Community College District. It is sponsored by the King-Chávez-Parks Initiative of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, which named the MICUP program at Michigan Tech the Best Practice Model in the state in 2008.
Michigan Tech established the MICUP program in 1996. Since then, more than two hundred community college students have had their first taste of university life in MICUP, "and the retention of transfer students is great," says Madeline Mercado Voelker, coordinator of Hispanic-Latino outreach and a codirector of the MICUP program.
MICUP students spend seven weeks in May and June living in residence halls, taking college classes, doing internships with Michigan Tech faculty, receiving academic and career counseling, and participating in the Outdoor Adventure Program. As a commitment to the MICUP program, the University provides room and tuition to participants. Meals are covered by funds from the grant. The students also receive stipends.
"It wouldn't work without stipends, because these are mainly economically disadvantaged students, and they would have to find jobs instead of coming to Michigan Tech," says Mercado Voelker.
Approximately 40 percent of community college students are minorities, and 40 percent are the first in their families to go to college, says Chris Anderson, special assistant to the president for institutional diversity at Michigan Tech. "Successful recruitment of greater numbers of these students to Michigan Tech can significantly increase our student diversity while attracting outstanding students who bring new perspectives to our campus."
Michigan Tech President Glenn D. Mroz has nothing but praise for MICUP. "Opening the opportunity of education to a wider array of people ensures that the range of ideas applied to problems will be broad and the solutions will be more robust," says Mroz. "As a nation dependent on the ideas of all, we'll limit our options for the future if we don't provide opportunity for all. And this program does just that."