From the outside looking in it appears Gail Ford’s life has come full circle. The newly installed director of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE program, was once enrolled in a similar college prep initiative as a teenager.

That earlier experience guides and informs Ford’s approach in efforts to move the 20-year program into its next iteration as it strives to become an even stronger partner for college access and student academic success.

UMOJA: What is your vision for the PEOPLE program and how do you plan to implement this vision? 

Ford: The program has a vision to be the premier college access program for student success. I see my role as to continue the actualization of this mission as I stand on the shoulders of those who led this program before me. 

UMOJA: What are some examples of the way in which you have contributed a level of innovation and strategic leadership to the program and organization?

Ford: In 2018, I opened a new office in Milwaukee with seven full-time staff members, including four new precollege advisors to serve our precollege scholars in the Milwaukee Public School district. Implemented THRIVE, a social emotional learning curriculum for precollege students to respond to the rise of mental health needs for students. Created a Student Code of Conduct for our Precollege Scholars that includes student voice and promotes transparency in behavior expectations and the disciplinary process.

I secured over $1,000,000 in grants and donor funds to support the program operations and improve the student experience. Developed and or maintained partnerships with over 20 UW-Madison Departments and local businesses to provide internship to PEOPLE participants.

UMOJA: How does the program define and measure success and its level of impact to the community? 

Ford: Our program tagline is “Partners in College Access and Success.” 

We have two main goals for PEOPLE:

Goal #1 – Access: Enroll our precollege scholars in higher education. Currently over 94% of precollege scholars who complete our program are admitted into college. 

Goal #2 – Success: Graduate [our] college scholars from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. As of 2017 our six-year graduation rate for our college scholars is 76.7%.

UMOJA: You serve in a high profile and intense capacity. How do you create a work-life balance? What coping strategies are helpful for you?

Ford: Work-life balance is really important. I’m really lucky to enjoy the work I do and the people I do it with. The college access space can be very taxing. Your clients are your students, their parents, your campus and community partners, and the taxpayer — those are many stakeholders to be accountable to. 

Administering a program where most of the students are minors, in a University setting that isn’t designed for precollege students is really tricky. But, I amour students. 

I benefitted from a precollege program that my sister was enrolled in. I know the power programs like PEOPLE harness to literally change the trajectory of families in regards to options for higher education. 

Remembering why I do the work and learning to not react to everything that triggers me as an African- American woman in this space helps me to keep my mental space balanced. My growing family is also an inspiration for me. 

Seven years ago, my husband and I lost our first son at 40 weeks. This loss really propelled me to appreciate and celebrate every day of life as a precious moment. No matter how long or short your life is here on earth, you can have an impact on the world. I strive to do that daily and that perspective helps me tremendously in my work. 

UMOJA: Tremendous challenges face first generation college students. What advice or helpful tips would you give to a student who is considering or presently navigating this journey?

Ford: My first piece of advice is to believe in yourself regardless of the mainstream narrative. There is a first for everything — be proud of yourself for taking that risk and walking in territory unchartered for your family. 

Find support and community on your campus and take advantage of it early and as often as needed. Never be afraid to go into the Dean of Students Office and ask for what you need. 

The cost of a college education has increased so much in the last 20 years, get your money’s worth by taking advantage of every resource and opportunity you’re paying for. The role of a student is to learn, so never be ashamed of having to learn the answers. From learning how to solve the math problem to where to get your campus ID, be brave enough to ask the questions and demand answers. 

UMOJA: What advice would you give to family and friends of a first-generation college student?

Ford: College has an ecosystem and culture all on its own. Your student really needs to focus on learning this new environment, their studies, and their development as an adult. 

For them to transition successfully and be productive, they need to be free to focus on adjusting to the new demands of a college student. 

Your student will need space, support and encouragement to adjust. Encourage them to stay the course and limit your ask of them while they get settled into college life.

UMOJA: What are you looking forward to in 2020?

 Ford: I’m most looking forward to the new baby and leading the program in this new role.