Travel is a major part of my life, and spending 36 hours in any given city is not uncommon. As I sit on my flight home from Detroit, Michigan, reflecting on the events that have occurred over the last day and a half, I am moved by the whole experience in a way I never have been in my many years of traveling.
Detroit was once the fourth largest American city in the mid-20th century. It was a booming metropolis and a manufacturing hub, specifically for the auto industry. Between 1950 and 2010, the population of Detroit has decreased by 62%¹ to just over 700,000.
As you drive from downtown Detroit you see the evidence of the economic collapse of a once thriving city that is actually larger in square miles than Boston, New York and San Francisco combined. Traveling between the airport, the towns of Pontiac and Roseville and downtown Detroit, I saw scenes just like in the photo: dilapidated building after building highlighting the urban decay due to the major economic and demographic declines, and the largest municipal bankruptcy case in US history.
Curiosity kicks in, and I wonder what Detroit was like in the 1970s. Who worked here, and most importantly, what will the next generation do to regain control of their future?
After traveling through the suburbs of Detroit and saddened by the sights, I arrive at Dorsey Schools to present as the Commencement Speaker at the first ever Penn Foster/Dorsey Schools High School graduation ceremony. 19 former high school dropouts who took back control of their futures, were presented with their well-earned diploma, and many are now enrolled in the Dorsey career college. In speaking with the administrators and the students, I heard story after story about how this program is changing their lives. These 19 students are no longer high school dropouts, or so called non-completers, and all can now proudly say they are graduated, with the majority attending college. The data shows that even in a struggling economy, these students have a better chance at succeeding and fulfilling dreams that were utterly out of reach prior to this event. Later in the day, I spoke on the Pontiac Campus at Dorsey Schools to another 21 students receiving their high school diploma. I left those two events feeling great about our partnership, amazed at the level of grit these students showed, and humbled to play a small part in their very special day.
Next up, I find myself at our first ever Student Meet-up in downtown Detroit. Held in a unique coffee shop in the city, the room was filled with excitement. Our students, ranging from those enrolled in our high school as adults, to our construction career program, to our Early Childhood Education Associates degree program, were all eager to meet each other and us. They ranged from 18 to 62 years old and came from a variety of backgrounds, but they all had one thing in common: a need for "non-traditional" education to help empower them to pursue their dream and use skill-building and training as a catalyst for improving their life opportunities. Some work full time while balancing family time, others struggle in a distracting classroom setting and need to be alone to focus on their studies. It is clear to me that our 'pay-as-you-go' payment model (i.e., no student loans), and our 'at-your-own-pace' learning model are two of the critical success factors that make our program work. It also showcases essential ingredients to earnestly addressing the achievement gap for at-risk youth and adults.
In those short 36 hours, I experienced a range of emotions, mostly positive. But as I head back to the airport, I think about the parallels between what I saw in the buildings of Detroit and the students I met. The city is downtrodden, yet there is evidence of the phoenix rising from the ashes, with examples such as the Rock Ventures Opportunity Detroit mission to revitalize Detroit from the inside out. I saw the phoenix in the students I met. Some were previously homeless or jumping from job to job, not really getting ahead with significant life risk factors. Many had been given a bad roll of the dice, or lacked sufficient mentors, but they are being revitalized and using education to do that. Our students are using their training as a pathway to stronger skills, greater confidence, and in turn, alternative pathways.
I realize that Penn Foster needs to be a bigger part of the revitalization efforts of Detroit. These are good people, challenged by an unhealthy economy and a legacy of municipal mismanagement. We already have almost 1800 students in the metro-Detroit area, but I believe we can make a difference on an even large scale. We will be back Detroit!
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