Michigan Tech is a distinct institution — and it was the right one for Arick Davis and Donzell Dixson. Now, these young Black alumni are helping prospective students figure out if Tech is right for them, too.
Or, in some cases, just figure out higher education in general. In this Q&A, Davis (AD) and Dixson (DD) Michigan Tech’s first alumni recruitment specialists specifically tasked with connecting to students of color share how this part-time gig is a continuation of their mentorship work — and why it’s important to them.
Q: What's your major and grad year? What do you do now? When you're not working, where might we find you?
AD: My major was electrical engineering and I graduated in December 2016. I do a lot of things. We just launched Last Mile Café, a technology-intensive coffee experience. I also own Empathy Tech, a small company specializing in web design, e-commerce strategy and technology consulting. I’m the president of a nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Code for Good West Michigan. Those are my primary jobs. When I’m not working, I’m usually with my daughters and my partner. We really like watching movies or anime as a family. We also play a lot of hide and seek.
DD: Finance, 2014. I’m a data analyst at Target Headquarters, and the owner and operator of Dixson Dynamics, a motivational education company. I serve as board chair at the North Community YMCA. When I’m not working, I’m in the park taking walks with my wife and daughter, volunteering in my local community and trying different food spots in the area.
Q: Why did you agree to take on this alumni recruitment position?
AD: It was something I already did naturally. Michigan Tech is certainly not for everyone, but whenever I met a smart, quirky and enthusiastic high school student, I always felt compelled to share my experience at MTU with them. Furthermore, as a kid who grew up in poverty, I was fortunate to realize early on that if I could graduate college and get a job as an engineer, I would not have to repeat the cycle that I saw growing up. I know that isn’t the story of every prospective student in an underrepresented group, but it is my story and I’m excited to share it with anyone it can help.
DD: I agreed to take on this alumni recruitment position because representation, access and equity is important to me. There is a huge opportunity to increase diversity at Michigan Tech, especially in the STEM space. As an alumnus, I want to help prospective students navigate and receive access to an amazing education at an amazing university. My goal is to also help them navigate their environment, being a minority in the space.
Q: Initiative leader Kellie Raffaelli says you are building mentoring relationships on a deeper level — even if prospective students decide they don't want to go to Tech. Tell us about your approach and who it benefits.
AD: My goal is to get to know the student first: who they are, how they learn, what their ambitions are, if they are tough enough to handle 200+ inches of snow every year, etc. The reality is that it isn't for everyone. My sincerest objective is to make sure that more people understand the opportunity and feel empowered to take control of their lives. That’s what I try to share.
DD: I was once a senior in high school myself and I remember how there are so many unknowns about what to expect in the “real world.” I genuinely want to help others in that situation. If a student decides to attend Michigan Tech or not, I want to give them information, access and be a resource. As I get older, I understand more clearly that everybody’s situation is different. Some students in urban communities specifically might not have support from parents or the same access to resources as their rural and suburban colleagues.
"The rewarding part is simply knowing that I had an impact in someone's life, whether that is to give them hope that college is possible or to give them access to financial aid to make college more affordable. I get fulfillment from being able to assist them in that."
Q: What does a typical recruiting/mentoring experience look like? How do you make contact? How do you keep the conversation going? What's it like working with regional admissions managers (RAMs)?
AD: The majority of the contact comes through Tom Hampton, my RAM. Working with Tom has been phenomenal. He’s willing to try new things, adapts quickly and genuinely cares about supporting students. He says he didn’t go to Tech, but I’m not buying it! Pre-COVID, it would also be likely that I would just bump into someone and spark up a conversation, through mentoring at the local high schools, through my work or at networking or panel discussions. However it happens, it usually starts with a conversation — a lot of listening, learning about where they are in their journey and sliding in nuggets from my journey if it seems like a good fit. From there, I’ll try to help them get to the next step, whatever that looks like for them — whether it’s finding an internship, setting up a campus tour or learning more about financial aid.
"A lot of times they know exactly what they need to do and all I really do is give them permission and encouragement to do it."
DD: Due to COVID, everything has been virtual. I make my initial contact through email or text; once a student responds, we set up time to meet on Zoom. They have the option to turn their cameras on or leave them off depending on their comfort level. I always turn my camera on so that students can see me and get a feel for who I am as a person.
I keep the logistical conversation of things we need to cover short (financial aid, campus life, etc.) and get right into asking questions to get to know them as a person: What activities are you involved in outside of school? What interested you in Michigan Tech? Why this major? What changes would you like to see in the world? What do you do for fun? That helps me identify student organizations, Enterprises, events and extracurricular activities they may be interested in at Tech. Then I ask the most important question: What are your reservations about attending MTU or college in general? That enables me to share how I dealt with that particular issue and offer resources and advice.>
The RAMs are awesome! Individually and collectively, they are quick and willing to help out. I appreciate their knowledge and focus. They value this program and our perspectives. They lead, but they also equip us with the skills to lead as well.
Q: The rise in enrollment shows that the initiative has so far been very successful. What do you think is making the difference? Is it students and parents meeting someone who looks like them?
AD: Yes and no. I think it is less about simply having the face and more about sharing the perspective. Also, prior to starting this role, I was committed to creating a pipeline between prospective, current and former Black MTU students. I was not the only one that saw the need for this. Luckily, the current students at MTU have picked up this mission of connectedness without much help from me. I think the continued growth of our URM (underrepresented minority) population has to do with all of us sharing our stories, sharing our perspectives, listening to the concerns of students and assuring them that the journey and the challenges are certainly worth the reward.
DD: Yes, that is a component. Representation is important. Sometimes there’s more comfort when someone sees someone who looks like them. I’m not saying that the RAMs aren’t capable of answering the same questions, but sometimes people receive it differently when it comes from someone who looks like them. Another big part is socioeconomics. I feel that students of color who grew up similar to the prospective students or prospective students’ parents can relate on a deeper level, understand and be more proactive to ask questions that they can see the parent or student are afraid to ask. This trait comes from your own intuition and how you grew up. You can’t teach that.
Q: Your conversations with these students are intended to be real and honest. At Michigan Tech, what are the main challenges that Black students and other people of color face? What do you tell prospective students about your experiences and what advice do you give?
AD: The biggest challenge we face is connectedness. I hope it goes without saying that every Black student doesn’t immediately connect with every other Black student. Connections are based on experiences, hobbies, majors and socioeconomic background. So when you only have 50 students in a community (accounting for the students that are off campus in study abroad or co-op), the odds of finding someone who you really deeply connect with is low. You do find yourself feeling somewhat alone, at least in the beginning. Several of the students I’ve talked to considered leaving MTU after their first year due to some version of this issue. This is why I mentioned earlier the pipeline of connectivity so that Black students don’t only have to rely on current MTU students as their support group, but can also feel well connected to recent alumni who survived the struggle.
I can only be honest. I came into MTU laser-focused on being an electrical engineer. I made my decision based on what university I thought would give me the most successful shot at being an electrical engineer and MTU is what I chose. I started off knowing that I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way of reaching that goal.
I certainly had many of my own challenges and struggles pop up throughout my time at Michigan Tech and my honest perspective is that racism was not one of them. That is not to say racism didn’t exist — but it was not one of my top hindrances.
"Engineering is a field that doesn't have a lot of Black people. The reality is that a lot of the big companies and positions of power are controlled by white men. I honestly consider it irrelevant if there is a particular white male in the way of me reaching my goal. That may sound a bit convoluted, but if I am having this conversation with a student, I really drill down on what is important to them for their college experience and what their vision of life after college looks like. If you are a good fit for Tech and you think you will be successful at Tech, don't feed into the power of bigotry by letting those ignorant people hold you back from success."
Aside from that, the advice that I consistently give prospective students is not to waste their opportunities. They will only be young once and if they decide to go to MTU, there will be so many opportunities presented to them, like co-ops, internships, research projects, study abroad, entrepreneurship competitions — and all of that is on top of the friendships, the mentorships, the education and student orgs. Your college experience can really be whatever you want it to be, and when it comes to engineering schools in Michigan, Michigan Tech allows you to create your own path in a way that no other university can.
DD: One of the main issues students of color face is imposter syndrome — the feeling that you don’t belong or believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. Many times this is due to a student’s upbringing, especially first-generation college students. When no one in your family has attended college, students can sometimes feel internally that they didn’t earn it or that people are going to see right through you. This adds pressure to be a perfectionist and be very self-critical. That can be detrimental to a student’s mental, emotional and physical health.
Another issue is not feeling welcomed. When you attend a university that doesn’t show any signs of your culture, ethnicity or beliefs, it doesn’t make students feel welcomed.
Another is finding interests and reasons to keep you at Michigan Tech besides academics — this is a huge opportunity for the University to address retention rates for students of color.
I’m up-front with prospective students. I help them be prepared so when a situation presents itself, they can remember, “Donzell said this is how he got through that — let me give it a try.”
Students may also experience pressure if they feel like they’re expected to be the spokesperson for their minority group.
"Society has to stop putting that pressure on students of color and understand that they are individuals with their individual thoughts and do not speak for all people of a certain group."
Finally, there’s the feeling of isolation. Many students from URM populations who attend Michigan Tech aren’t from the Keweenaw. Being so far away from family and friends affects students. The long winters don’t help, as this is another reason you can feel isolated. That’s why it’s important to find ways to connect and engage.
Q: You’ve both been successful in your work with Admissions and established fulfilling and amazing careers, too. Where do you see your role at Michigan Tech going in the future?
AD: As far as Michigan Tech goes, this is probably it for me. I plan to do this role for the next three years or so and I hope the position is passed on to a younger, more recent, enthusiastic alumni of color who can share their perspective.
DD: I see myself continuing to be involved more at Michigan Tech in different capacities. I was previously the keynote speaker for the 30th annual MLK Day Banquet. I’ve led workshops on how to face your fears, spoken to students in the Applied Portfolio Management Program (APMP) on business knowledge and skill sets, and am now advocating for students of color as a recruiter.
I hope to expand my involvement with Michigan as a whole — along with the College of Business, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the cities of Houghton and Hancock. I want to give back and help the community that helped me by building relationships with key stakeholders and creating programs, curriculums and professional development around diversity, equity and inclusion, along with the so-called soft skills that are important for Michigan Tech students to have when they graduate and begin careers. These skills include public speaking, goal setting, leadership, character, etc. I have learned that Michigan Tech students possess many technical skills; however, some struggle at times when it comes to public speaking and advocacy.
Q: What's next for you in your lives and careers?
AD: I’ve found a sweet spot of freedom and flexibility that I really enjoy, so I will certainly continue down my path of entrepreneurship and community leadership.
DD: Embracing fatherhood. I have a 1-year-old daughter who keeps me very busy. I’m also continuing to grow my business and my services in the realm of education and completing my EdS (education specialist) degree to develop advanced knowledge and theory beyond my master's degree.
Next in the finale of this three-part series: Experience a Michigan Tech tradition as the African-American Alumni Association (A4) brings past, present and future Huskies of the Lower and Upper Peninsulas together in Detroit. This year, the party is in the downtown district's Greektown. And there are plenty of special guests, including Michigan Tech’s first Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.