Empowering Urban College Students

April 14, 2016

“We believe that we can teach you anything by incorporating your life and background into the lesson plan.”

by Juliana Rosati

Bald man with glasses wearing suit.
Michael Sorrell, GRD’15, College President
Dallas, Texas

When Michael Sorrell, GRD’15, became president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, enrollment was dwindling, the campus was in disrepair, and the school was deeply in debt. In 2009, it was in danger of losing its accreditation. Today, the college is lauded for groundbreaking programs that are opening up lifelong opportunities for students.

The turnaround has been as bold as the path Sorrell took to his role. When he made Dallas his home as an attorney at a city law firm, he found again and again that the new friends he made were graduates of Paul Quinn, a historically Black college founded in 1872. Sorrell sought opportunities to support the college as a way of thanking his friends, and when the job of president opened up he applied at the age of thirty-five, with no experience in higher education.

“Predictably, I was not exactly greeted with an enthusiastic response,” he says with a laugh. “But my thought was, ‘you need a person who understands business, who understands relationships.’” Offered a spot on the board instead, Sorrell accepted the post and watched the college go through four presidents in five years until he was offered the top post at a time when, he says, no one wanted the position.

President since 2007, Sorrell has launched a series of dramatic initiatives to make Paul Quinn both effective and empowering for students from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, but especially those experiencing poverty.

By adopting a “work college” model that assigns students jobs on and off campus, Sorrell has decreased tuition. “Students from Pell Grant backgrounds can graduate with less than ten thousand dollars of debt, and they get two forms of education—a real-world work experience, and a rigorous liberal arts experience,” he says. Classroom learning is tailored to have relevance to students’ lives. “We believe that we can teach you anything by incorporating your life and background into the lesson plan,” says Sorrell. “We can teach you poetry by analyzing Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ and discussing it in the context of your childhood in an inner city.”

Sorrell worked to change students’ perceptions of their role in the community, turning the college’s abandoned football field into a student-operated organic farm. The farm donates and sells fresh produce locally, offering a needed product in an area considered a “food desert.” Sorrell explains, “The act of giving empowers you and begins to transform your narrative.”

Fully accredited and with an enrollment that has nearly doubled in five years, Paul Quinn has received the 2011 Historically Black College or University (HBCU) of the Year Award, the 2012 HBCU Student Government Association of the Year Award, and the 2013 HBCU Business Program of the Year Award from HBCU Digest. Sorrell was named to the 2013 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

A graduate of Penn GSE’s Executive Doctorate in Higher Education Management program, Sorrell undertook his doctorate while leading Paul Quinn. “The total experience was fantastic, and for all the degrees I’ve beenfortunate enough to attain, I have a closer bond with my classmates from Penn GSE as a whole than I do from anywhere else,” says Sorrell, who studied work colleges for his dissertation. “They’re a set of people I can call and brainstorm with, who I know have my best interest at heart.”

Sorrell has the highest standards for Paul Quinn and its students. “My expectation is that our students will go out and change the world,” he says. Looking ahead, he makes it clear the school’s ascent is far from finished. “We’re trying to reinvent urban higher education,” he says. “To be frank with you, I haven’t even taken the best stuff off the shelf yet.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Penn GSE Magazine.

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