Students at Paul Quinn College are about to be put to work. The historically black college in South Dallas is being reborn as a “work college,” where everyone who lives on campus works for the school in some form or another.
Kevin Lee has worked as an office assistant to the college president since he started his freshman year at Paul Quinn College last fall, answering phones, sending faxes, and filing papers. The business and pre-law major from Pittsburgh believes that learning how to work in an office is a huge part of his education.
“Students may go to Yale or Harvard, but when they graduate, they don’t have any work experience,” he said. A robust resume of work experience may give him an advantage in the job market.
Half of the students at this small college already work on campus. The school wants the special “work college” designation. Only 7 colleges-- all in rural areas-- have it now.
President Michael Sorrell started a beta version last year, finding campus jobs for all the freshmen. This year, freshmen and sophomores have them.
“It’s a complete change in the way that the institution has done business for the 140-plus years that it has been in existence,” he said.
For one thing, teachers are also becoming supervisors. And the workers in grounds keeping, facilities, and security are suddenly a lot younger.
On Monday, Sorrell decided to do some impromptu teaching to his young employees.
“I’m coming down the steps, and they haven’t been swept good enough. So I go get a broom,” he explained. He couldn’t find every student on the work crew at that moment, but he figured it was time for them to learn the same thing he’d once learned from his mother and father.
“I showed them how to sweep the steps properly,” he said.
Big Changes for a Small College
Sorrell took over Paul Quinn College in 2007, when it nearly lost its accreditation. He got a lot of attention when he axed the football program and turned the field into a farm. It was his answer to the food desert in the poor neighborhood where the school is located.
Students work on the farm and sell the extra food. Victoria Wilson, dean of the work program, finds jobs for the students and makes sure they’re actually doing them.
“We’re not just throwing the students out in the field to pick cucumbers. We’re all role models and we’re all mentors for them,” she said.
The students get paid ten dollars per hour, and it goes directly to their tuition. The work college model was born in Appalachia, to offer poor students a chance to go to college.
It will take two years before Paul Quinn can be called a work college, and take advantage of the government grants specifically for them.
Robin Taffler, executive director of the Work Colleges Consortium, gets lots of inquiries from colleges who are interested in this model, but find that the government requirements aren’t worth the fuss.
“You have to have all these things operating smoothly before the Department of Ed will even come in,” she said. “Typically it isn’t something that you can just do in two years.”
Taffler looks forward to welcoming an eighth member to her fold of work colleges, especially a historically black college in a large urban area.