ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Kelly Saybe and Xavier Abdullahi sat front and center in class on a Wednesday in October. They’re thrilled to be at the University of St. Thomas.

Xavier had been working full time to help his family the last few years after graduating from high school in 2013. While on a soccer field this summer, a friend mentioned Dougherty Family College. He was intrigued, so he applied and was excited when he got in. Xavier said going to a university wouldn’t have been attainable for him financially. He might have been able to afford community college but doesn’t think he would be doing as well there because they don’t have the same support structure as Dougherty Family College.

Last spring, Kelly and her mom wondered, and worried, how she would ever be able to pay for college.

“When my mom saw the ‘I’m in’ T-shirt, she started crying,” Kelly said.

Today, along with 105 other students, they’re getting an education through DFC, Dougherty Family College, at the University of St. Thomas. It serves students who couldn’t afford college or lacked the support needed to succeed in school.

Related Link: Dougherty Family College

The college is designed to provide a two year associate degree and prepare students to complete their junior and senior years and earn a four-year degree. DFC has the same academic rigor as the University of St. Thomas and follows a similar curriculum. In addition, DFC provides transportation, meals, text books, a laptop computer, mentoring and a paid Internship for all students.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing — all the students receive a scholarship. They pay what they can afford, but must contribute at least $1,000 toward tuition.

The school bears the name of Mike Dougherty.

“The kids are not looking for a handout, they were looking for an opportunity for a better life and hopefully that’s what we gave them,” he said.

Gene Frey is a UST grad who donated $5 million to fund DFC. Dougherty won’t say how many millions he donated, but the school has raised more than $27 million. His mission is to change lives, and in turn, benefit the community.

“Education is something that, no matter what happens, can never be taken away from you,” Dougherty said.

He should know — he’s had a lot taken from him. Dougherty’s parents died when he was young, making him an orphan at 14. He was a boarder student at St. Thomas Academy high school in Mendota Heights.

However, he blew his first shot at college and kicked out of Creighton for academic and disciplinary reasons. So, he entered the army. He credits his military service with turning his life around. It was St. Thomas that believes in the young Dougherty.

“I have a very checkered background, and St. Thomas gave me a second chance, and I’ll be forever grateful,” he said. “I’m sitting here because of that and I will be forever grateful.”

Dougherty would get a job selling bonds and would eventually start his own investment bank. It’s provided for his family and provided the means to give back.

Dougherty and Frey know many of the students by name. They’re excited their new path to higher education has been met with such enthusiasm.

“It’s great to see kids that have, to use the expression, fire in their belly,” Frey said. “They really want to do it but for some reason or another they are held back. In great measure it’s the cost.”

Dougherty and Frey believe the entire country is watching to see if the DFC model works. University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan saw the need to help under-served young people and pitched them the idea. Remarkably, the administration was able to put DFC together within a year after the two men agreed to support if financially.

Alvin Abraham is the Dean of DFC. He says it was a risk for UST to take on the project. In fact, that’s one of the things that drew him to be part of it. He wanted to work at an institution that wasn’t afraid to take some changes and do things differently.

The Dean himself is unique in that he hasn’t worked in higher education before. The university found him because of his background in high school, trying to place under-served students in colleges. Abraham fell in love with the idea of DFC.

“To be able to jump into this market and create something that can truly make an impact and change the trajectory of someone’s life is huge,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity, so we’re really excited.”

Kelly and Xavier are excited too. Xavier said he sees his success at DFC as a way to set an example for his younger siblings.

The Oct. 13 dedication of the college was full of eager students, dignitaries and supporters. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar was on hand where she quoted former Vice President Walter Mondale: “You never know what a young person is going to do or what their potential is. You never know if you don’t give them a chance”

The college is accepting applications. More information can be found here.

Frank Vascellaro

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