Category Archives: Education

‘They Are Able to Turn Deficits into Positives’

Learning shared by The Possible Project from working with high school entrepreneurs.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

In continuing the exploration of how innovation and entrepreneurialism can empower people to better their own situation, I discovered The Possible Project. Having seen firsthand The Possible Project’s positive impact with high school students using entrepreneurialism as a motivator, I believe it is important to share the lessons learned here in the Work of Start.

Illustration of Megan Dolan, Leah Camhi, and Jacey Buel of The Possible Project by Jason Freeman

The Possible Project serves as an afterschool program for Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (the main public high school) and two public charter schools, Prospect Hill Academy Charter School and Community Charter School of Cambridge. I sat down one morning with Leah Camhi (Executive Director), Megan Dolan (Development & Communications Manager), and Jacey Buel (Entrepreneurship Education Director) at The Possible Project workspace in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk about working with high school students as they become entrepreneurs in the program.

Megan first shares how The Possible Project has evolved over the program’s existence. This evolution has been spurred by having the opportunity to listen to the students directly and learning from their individual situations. She elaborates on the importance of adapting the program based on understanding the individuals they serve, and that there was no way to “account for the difficulty and challenges that many of our students face in their lives” until the actual work was underway. Megan also shares her appreciation for Jacey’s strong encouragement to move away from strictly planning the curriculum and more toward accelerating the timeline of actually working with students when the program was initially being developed. Leah reinforces the importance of learning through doing and shares that as The Possible Project continues to grow their intent is to be “malleable enough that we can figure out what is working and isn’t working.”

Traveling abroad, taking care of younger siblings, and participating in school activities such as sports are all examples of “life happening” for students in The Possible Project. The organization has responded with big changes such as moving from a semester to a trimester system to give students additional entry (and reentry points) into the program, and small changes including adjustments to the student incentive programs (students are now rewarded with prize redemption points instead of gift cards for progress in developing their individual businesses). It is the pragmatism and flexibility seen in working with The Possible Project that has so impressed me, and I ask the group to share more about their unique approach to encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in their students.

“Everything that we try to do is really built around teamwork because there is more accountability if you have got a partner or partners,” shares Leah. The importance of starting with teamwork is elaborated by Leah through an observation that “if you infuse something at the very beginning then it becomes commonplace.” During a discussion about how to foster a collaborative environment, Jacey explains that the majority of the time a student is at The Possible Project “there is no such thing as speaking out of turn.” For instance, a Possible Project student is not going to have to raise a hand and be addressed formally to actively participate in a team conversation about developing their business.

It is a discussion about The Possible Project’s emphasis on teamwork along with differences from a traditional high school curriculum that prompts Megan to impart “we are purposefully not school-like in our approach, but we have a very strong connection to the schools.” These ties to the high schools include their nomination of students for The Possible Project, maintaining a formal point of contact at a school, and reports about the students’ academic and behavioral progress. While Leah points out how critical it is to have these formal affiliations to the schools and the students they serve, she also notes the importance of having people from the Cambridge community such as Jacey on The Possible Project’s staff.

Leveraging ties to the community also involves tapping into other resources such as a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambridge. Megan describes what she has coined the “e-shuffle” where students are able to interact with various local entrepreneurs who are also building a business. Leah smiles as she quips that the students are energized by bringing back the numerous business cards they have collected during these interactions and that “they love to have ‘business contacts.'” It is this external contact that gives the students perspective on the challenges of building a business and opens their mind to new opportunities.

The Possible Project students are also able to glean from the e-shuffle a passion that is usually invested in a startup by the founders. Starting a business imparts a sense of ownership and dedication, according to Jacey, because students in the program “pick things that are personal to them, or that bring out a part of them that would not be brought out in school.” The discussion on passion also highlights an interesting and counterintuitive element of The Possible Project: entrepreneurism used as a motivator for the students that are struggling in school as well as for the students who are doing well academically. Jacey points out that for the academically-successful, entrepreneurialism “gives them the opportunity to have fun.” He shares an example of a student who uses time to bake cookies for her business as an outlet to counterbalance the pressure of homework and tests.

The students in The Possible Project and the businesses they create are “not treated as some off-hand hobby,” as stated by the staff. The dedication to treating the students and their businesses in a serious way comes through very clearly when talking to Leah, Megan, and Jacey. When asked why the group is so passionate about the program, I’m given the analogy of those inspirational entrepreneurs who go out to solve problems using their own unique set of skills and resources. In a similar way, The Possible Project works for the students because, with respect to talent and passions that might not be appreciated in the high school setting, “they are able to turn deficits into positives.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

‘Active Participants in Their Own Learning’

 Lessons learned from BUILD in Boston after the  first academic year.

Boston, Massachusetts

While searching for a better understanding of the work required with starting and building something innovative, I have come to a deep appreciation of those that empower other people to better their own situation. This appreciation has been greatly influenced by my involvement in the business startup community of the Greater Boston area where entrepreneurs are surrounded by resources to support innovation. Two venues for this entrepreneurial support include the MassChallenge accelerator program and startup competition as well as the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) that provides flexible office space as well as opportunities for entrepreneurs to network and develop professionally. It was at an event held at the CIC where I first encountered BUILD, a program that uses entrepreneurialism to foster students’ engagement and success in high school.

Illustration of Ryan Oliver and Ayele Shakur

BUILD launched fall 2011 in Boston after successfully establishing programs in East Palo Alto, Oakland, and Washington D.C. Now that BUILD in Boston has completed its first academic year I took the opportunity to sit down with Ayele Shakur, Regional Executive Director for BUILD in Boston, and Ryan Oliver, Site Director for BUILD in Boston, to talk about lessons learned.

BUILD motivates high school students to achieve academic success through starting a business. Ayele shares that the program “helps young people tap into their own self direction” through academic learning in the context of entrepreneurialism. She explains that a critical element of motivation is helping students realize, in the process of building their business, “that [their] locus of control is no longer outside of them” and for many of the students it is “the first time that they’ve connected that level of success with school.”

In my attempt to better understand ways to cultivate motivation Ryan points out that students are building a business around a product they are already excited about “because they have chosen it or they have bought into it in some way.” Developing a business also offers a student a chance to win on different levels, he explains. The problem, as Ryan sees it, is that a lot of students “have decided already by the time they get to the ninth grade that academia is not a competition they can win.” Ayele then follows up on the importance of exposing the students to real world opportunities and competition. She uses an offsite field trip to the MassChallenge accelerator and startup competition as an example of showing “this whole idea of a business plan competition was not just some exercise that they do in school.”

An interesting piece about the BUILD program for me is that students will not only receive a grade for their academic achievement but they will also get to keep the money earned from selling their products. When asked about the power that money has as a draw for students Ryan states that “we can sometimes overplay how much the money is ultimately the hook that gets them in.” Both Ayele and Ryan reiterate the idea that there is a stronger appeal which comes from nurturing a sense of usefulness and developing the student’s belief that their work actually matters. They believe the primary value of the program is not created from the act of making money, but the real value derived from combining the relationship building, academic rigor, and the real world elements in the context that entrepreneurialism provides. This is a “mix of something that is real world and relevant but has boundaries,” explains Ryan.

When asked about the things that make the program innovative, Ayele states that BUILD is “one of those models that you see best played out in some of our best charter schools, but this is actually now taken out of that charter school setting and applied to traditional public schools.” She goes on to explain that the successful scalability of the program is unique—charter school models that are successful in one location are often difficult to replicate in another. BUILD is a program that has proven to be successful in the public school setting while maintaining the practice of reaching out to those students who are struggling to engage academically.

Both Ayele and Ryan relay that the BUILD students each come with their uniquely individual struggles as well as their talents and passions. When describing the growth that the students achieved with BUILD, Ryan shares that “there were obviously some kids that were just sort of naturals…we’re doing a service on one hand just by giving them a stage.” He goes on to share that the “beauty of entrepreneurship and the BUILD model is that there are all different kinds of roles and ways that they can sort of find their piece.” Ayele then states the importance of recognizing that the students who may have struggled in the program at the beginning all “learned over the course of the year to standup and represent their team.”

Ayele shares that the focus in the past has been predominately on reforming the system through such things as better teacher training, decreasing school size, and providing stronger curriculum. The exciting opportunity, according to Ayele, is to figure out ways that students are “not just passive and they’re not just showing up to school because it’s the social place where their friends are hanging out. “ Ayele believes that BUILD can use entrepreneurship to engage students to be “fully bought in and active participants in their own learning.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will be less frequent while we explore the historical context for innovation.  **

‘If They Have an Education it May Save Their Lives’

The founders of Village Help for South Sudan offer their innovative perspective on promoting community development.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The world’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan, struggles with deep-seated challenges, many of which can be attributed to a Sudanese civil war spanning decades. As seen in the news recently, conflict has begun again after several years of peace. Understanding the underlying roots of the conflict is important, but I also believe it is important to know that there are people who are continuing to work diligently for improvement in the everyday lives of South Sudan’s citizens. I reached out to two of those people, Franco Majok and Ron Moulton, who are actively trying to support growth and development in South Sudan with the organization they founded, Village Help for South Sudan (VHSS).

Illustration of Ron Moulton and Franco Majok

Ron and Franco met with me in Cambridge, MA to discuss the important work they are doing with VHSS. This work includes program management and coordinating village mobilization around specific projects such as building a school and health clinic in the South Sudan village of Wunlang. The VHSS organization also has helped facilitate the installation of a water pump in Wunlang and is now looking to expand their efforts to another village in the region.

What makes VHSS an innovative organization in my mind is the way in which projects are accomplished—Franco and Ron seek to empower and provide resources to the local community members to better their own situation. In the way that many other innovative ideas have originated, Ron shares that the model of “leverage[ing] the talents of the local peoples and local materials…to accomplish something that we could not do ourselves” was unplanned and developed out of necessity, but then it actually “grew into the model.”

Franco and Ron both share that in order to successfully undertake projects that are accomplished by the local villagers and supported by an outside organization such as the VHSS there must be a strong foundation of trust established. The villagers must trust that VHSS will follow through on the commitment in funding for the project while the VHSS organization and donors must also trust that the village can complete the work. Franco says that in Wunlang village the initial seeds of trust were established in how the first project was selected. He shares that “the one thing we did before we started the [school building] project is we asked for a meeting with the local community [about]…their priorities.” Franco then restates the importance of asking “what did they want us to do first?” After stating his strong agreement of Franco’s assessment Ron adds that “we couldn’t have done the Wunlang school without Franco” who is originally from the village and had established credibility with the community thus setting the stage for a trusting relationship.

The power in the model of empowering local people and purchasing local materials for development is, shares Franco, that people become more independent. He goes on to state that a tangible building was created as an accomplishment from the school project but states that “at the same time, also, we created hope for job opportunity for the local people because they were employed” in the development of the structure.

Not fully understanding the power that one building can have on the people’s lives in the village of Wunlang I ask Franco and Ron to elaborate. Franco shares that “a school building is not for the sake of seeing the building; it is giving hope to families that their children are going to have a future. That is what the building does.” Ron followed up Franco’s assessment with the statement that “permanent structures mean prestige.” Prestige gained by having a permanent school building offers advantages that surrounding villages without schools don’t have including support from the government to pay teachers a salary.

There was another unexpected benefit that the first project provided to the Wunlang community—having a permanent school structure allowed for the development of a local market where parents dropping off children could buy and sell goods. This newly developed marketplace led Franco and Ron to strengthen a belief that the best way to support South Sudan was to focus on, as shared by Ron, “addressing the needs in a more holistic way.” He elaborates by saying a regional approach focusing on multiple projects in a couple of neighboring villages will have a bigger impact by not diluting their available resources. The hope in concentrating efforts, according to Franco, is to support a region until development is sustainable with local people, now empowered through education, experience, and resources to change their own situation.

Sustaining progress in South Sudan comes down to small incremental steps that, according to Ron, seem “pretty basic, but have a huge impact.” The work of VHSS has done in the village of Wunlang can stand as an example for other people promoting positive change, but Ron warns that “the first project is always the toughest.” He attributed the challenge of initiating change to lack of experience and a track record. Both Franco and Ron believe that a proven track record is the key to keeping momentum and sustaining progress on the ground in South Sudan. Franco then shared the reason why their projects and work need to continue in the region stating his strong belief that “if they have an education it may save their lives, they may save their community.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will now be published quarterly instead of monthly in order to accommodate the historic start articles.  **

‘This is a Pioneering Task’

The founding president of California State University, Monterey Bay shares insight about starting a university.

As I continue to identify and discuss some of the bright spots in the California State University system (see ‘The Trick is Just Doing’ and ‘Make an Impact at the Core of People’s Life’ articles), I realized the recent founding of California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) was an opportunity to better understand the dynamics of starting a complex organization with substantial impact. This realization came through my attendance of the 2011 CSUMB graduation ceremony, where I went to support a good friend who was graduating. Having read about the school’s past, which includes the interesting historical note that the university campus grew out of a former army base named Fort Ord, [1] I set out to learn more about its start. That research led me to a wonderful and insightful discussion with the founding president of CSUMB, Dr. Peter Smith.

Peter SmithHaving started his tenure at CSUMB in 1995, Peter served for over ten years in the role of President until his departure from the university in 2005. He describes the time there as exciting—an excitement based in large part on an opportunity to give life to a vision. Peter elaborates on the meaning of a living vision by stating that their team’s long-term goals were “not just on a wall in someone’s office.” The group of CSUMB founders, Peter believes, was ever focused on the vision of accomplishing a successful launch of an innovative university that would still achieve accreditation (CSUMB became Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation candidate in 1998 and achieved full accreditation in 2003 [2]). Thus, the education model of CSUMB was built around creating something new while adhering to an accreditation standard framework.

CSUMB works to provide students with a distinct environment including the promotion of service-learning opportunities. Peter recalls that the idea of service-learning, which is an integration of service in the community with graduation requirements, [3] as a new concept to many people and not always understood or embraced for the college environment. Another differentiating factor that CSUMB provides students is the required completion of a senior capstone project prior to graduation. [4] Upon approval, the self-selected project is a chance for students to explore and integrate various disciplines learned through their academic experience and apply that theory to a passion or interest. Peter boasts that the projects also give students valuable presentation practice because each project outcome is presented to an audience by the student. Betterment in learning outcomes is the stated driving force behind Peter’s passion for innovation and was expressed in his promotion of new ideas like the service-learning and capstone projects.

In an attempt to give context to the CSUMB start-up opportunity, Peter talks about the lessons learned from his prior involvement with the start of the Vermont Community College system. He says that being successful in these ventures requires the ability to stay proactive. While preparation is important, innovation necessitates strategic planning to give way to “doing” at some point. Peter warns against perpetually “sharpening your [planning] pencil” and never implementing a plan. “Innovation often requires the ‘ready, fire, aim’ mentality,” shares Peter, based on the practice of trying new things with knowledge that missing the targeted goal is a possibility. He goes on to try and explain the concept further through the analogy of building a bicycle while riding it—the process has to sustain forward movement while development is occurring.

Another important part of the innovative process is to take time to review what is and is not working, explains Peter. He stresses the concept with an example from his time at CSUMB where the university broke from class sessions for a full week in the first semester to assess the university’s progress. Taking the time to troubleshoot issues, align resources, and, as Peter states, “collect our wits,” was believed to be a critical component of CSUMB’s administration and growth as an institution. This brief timeframe was also important because it allowed the faculty to realign their activities and efforts toward what was successful and to stop doing what was not.

It is Peter’s opinion that finding faculty members who would provide the highest likelihood of success was a very important step in the process of developing CSUMB. He went on to relay that the newly formed organization needed instructors willing to help “invent this university.” To locate the type of person willing to be an innovator, Peter describes the selection process as “looking at the trees and not the forest,” meaning the qualities of the individual were most important in their selection as instructors. Peter needed faculty who could understand and embrace the idea that their work was creating something new and he would communicate this idea often.

Leading an educational start-up such as a university requires the careful communication of expectations, shares Peter.  This type of innovative work is fundamentally different than managing an established institution, and Peter believes that everyone involved had to rise up to the task with the knowledge there would be various issues encountered along the way. He describes how important it was to consistently “broadcast to people” the unique and challenging nature of starting a university, and, to increase their resolve, he would often state to administrative colleagues, faculty, and students that “this is a pioneering task.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Acquired from the California State University, Monterey Bay website –
2. Acquired from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges –
3. Acquired from the California State University, Monterey Bay website –
4. Acquired from the California State University, Monterey Bay website –

‘Something to Go Home and Talk about Everyday’

Former COO of the Center for Advanced Research and Technology talks about what it took to design and develop an innovative high school model.

Fresno, California

Sitting at the center of California, the cities of Fresno and Clovis form a joined metropolitan area and have a collective population of nearly 600,000 people. [1] These two cities maintain their Fresno and Clovis Unified School Districts and, when combined, serve more than 100,000 students [2] in-and-around the cities of Fresno and Clovis. With the knowledge that these two school districts serve a large group of students, I wanted to learn more about how the Fresno and Clovis districts are working together for better education outcomes. That search led me to the Center for Advanced Research and Technology or CART as it is commonly referred to. CART is designed for eleventh and twelfth grade high school students who come to the CART location in Clovis from their home campus to study one of four career clusters—Professional Sciences, Engineering, Advanced Communications, or Global Economics—in a laboratory setting for half of their school day. [3] To understand what was required to start CART, I met with the former COO, Susan Fisher.

Susan FisherFrom the beginning, Susan started her involvement with CART serving on the Curriculum Planning Committee, and in 1999, she became the Dean of Curriculum & Instruction. Then in 2004, Susan became the COO of CART, which could be compared to a Principal position at a traditional high school. She stayed in the COO position until 2010.

Susan starts the discussion with a statement that “CART is an experiment that worked.” She further explains that the experiment began in 1997 when the Fresno and Clovis districts decided to collaborate on the program. Clovis Unified had acquired a facility, formerly utilized by a pump manufacturer, with the goal of establishing a new kind of learning environment. This type of innovation required the talent and financial resources of both school districts so a partnership was formed.

Bridging the distinct cultures of two school districts was a challenge that Susan describes in great detail. She says the key to transcending the culture differences during the initial planning and development of CART was to establish a brand new culture, “defined by those who were in the room.” Individuals involved at the start had to become vested in the program by “giving up the past,” states Susan, which required identifying commonalities and compromising on differences.

The only agreement in the beginning was that the education model at CART had to be different, but Susan explains a consensus formed quickly around the idea that curriculum would be consistent while staying relevant for every student. To accomplish such a ground-breaking objective, people involved in the planning had to have the “freedom to change their approach,” shares Susan. These initial planners included the future teachers at CART, working in partnership for a year to design the program curriculum and teaching structure. Susan then shares her gratitude that the two school district administrations supported this collaborative planning phase, which she believes was critically important for the program’s success.

Selecting the initial group of teachers was unique because the selection criteria for a CART teacher was focused more on management skills instead of technical capabilities in a certain subject. In particular, CART was looking for teachers who enjoyed working with young people, were able to effectively manage teams, and could perform in a project-based education model. “We went after the best teachers we knew,” shares Susan, and what surprised her was the high level of applicant interest from the experienced teachers. Her original assumption was that a startup opportunity like CART would attract only those beginning their career in education.

When describing the educational environment at CART, Susan works to distinguish the team-based approach maintained by CART to traditional academic programs. She emphasizes that both the students and instructors work in teams, noting there are three or four instructors per class. Instructor teams are made-up of academic and business professionals, and they support student teams working on projects relating to their corresponding career cluster. Susan goes on to say that one of the benefits to CART’s model is that “team peer pressure for students and instructors makes everything transparent.” Greater transparency is what Susan attributes to an increased accountability in the classroom for both students and teachers and to the contribution of better learning outcomes.

It is Susan’s belief that CART is so special because the organization maintains some clear and simple objectives. The teachers and administration at CART want to create a space that is personalized for each student. Susan shares that when absent, “students will be missed” by team members and instructors for their individual contributions. Additionally, CART wants to keep students engaged by creating an environment that is comfortable and secure—a place where students want to be. Susan provides an amazing statistic regarding student safety: in ten years there has never been a physical fight at CART. When asked how CART works to maintain a student’s engagement, Susan says that it is simply important to give young people “something to go home and talk about everyday.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Population statistics – City of Fresno maintains 494,665 people and City of Clovis maintains 95,631 people – acquired from 2010 Census Bureau’s website –
2. Population statistics – Fresno Unified maintains “…more than 73,000 students…” and Clovis Unified maintains “…student population approaching 38,000.” – acquired from Fresno ( and Clovis Unified ( websites
3. Acquired from the Center for Advanced Research and Technology website –

‘Make an Impact at the Core of People’s Life’

The Director of both Outreach and the President’s Scholars Program at California State University, Long Beach, Valerie Bordeaux, shares about the beginning and maturity of the President’s Scholars Program.

Long Beach, California

In my continued investigation of bright spots in a struggling California State University system (see ‘The Trick is Just Doing’ article) I found through personal experience that the President’s Scholars Program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), is a shining example of sustained success. The first of its kind in California, the President’s Scholars Program offers full tuition and housing support along with many other benefits including priority registration and personalized academic advising [1] to high school valedictorians and national scholars. [2] The program was founded by former President Robert C. Maxson in 1995 and has been directed and managed by Valerie Bordeaux over the past 16 years.

Valerie BordeauxI met with Valerie at her office on the CSULB campus to learn more about the start and development of the President’s Scholars Program. Walking to her office, I was struck by smell of blooming jasmine flowers, the same aroma I encountered each spring when I attended CSULB as a President’s Scholar years ago. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Valerie with the same warm and energetic smile that met me over a decade ago when I began my journey to higher education.

Valerie began the discussion by sharing the question posed to her from former President Robert C. Maxson – “How many valedictorians do we have on campus?” Not having the statistic readily available, Valerie got to work researching the requested information. Her first step was calling California high schools to develop a list of valedictorians. Valerie described the sense of urgency in her research based on President Maxson’s “passion, focused like a laser” to recruit California’s brightest minds to CSULB.

President Maxson had previously developed a program to recruit top students to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as their university president, and Valerie said that a similar model was adopted for CSULB. According to Valerie, the start of the President’s Scholars Program was more than a formulaic implementation of a model; it was the “magic of everything converging in a special point in time” for the university. She then elaborated that the President’s Scholars Program was a “vision embraced” by everyone involved, and it took President Maxson’s leadership to make the vision “come alive.”

Valerie explained the recruitment tactics starting with the first 10 presidential scholarships offered in the fall of 1995 to over 1,000 scholarships since inception. One of Valerie’s strategies from the beginning was to recruit from all over California, including high school students from smaller towns throughout the state. She knew that these hometowns would “celebrate their superstar” students and help to promote the program. Valerie described sending press releases to student’s local news papers and having great recruitment success from these publications. She also described the practice of sending scholarship recipients back to their hometown high schools to recruit their best and brightest students.

The President’s Scholars Program had become a “deep-seated” part of the institution after growing over a ten-year incubation period under President Maxson’s leadership, explains Valerie. She then described President Maxson’s departure from the university in 2005, and how the program found a new champion in the current university president, F. King Alexander. President Alexander brought his own focus by expanding the access of the program to other nationally recognized scholar achievements including the National Achievement Program [3] for outstanding Black American high school students and the National Hispanic Recognition Scholars [4] for outstanding Hispanic and Latino high school students. The program also adopted a global focus by encouraging students to study abroad.

Everyone involved in the leadership and development of the President’s Scholars Program has played an important role, shares Valerie. Her role started as tactician in the “march to the vision” under President Maxson. That role then shifted to supporting a new leader in President Alexander as he learned of and embraced the critical impact that the President’s Scholars Program has had on students and the surrounding community. Once the value of the program was reaffirmed under a new president, Valerie’s role transformed yet again, now to working on expanding the access of the program to new scholar groups and the global environment. No matter how individual roles have changed, Valerie and the rest of the President’s Scholars team have sustained their drive with the strong-held value to “make an impact at the core of people’s life.”

Mr. Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

Mr. Freeman would like to extend a special thank you to President Robert C. Maxson for providing additional background information on the President’s Scholars Program.

1. Acquired from California State University, Long Beach website –
2. National scholar awards include National Merit Semifinalists/Finalists, National Achievement Program Semifinalists/ Finalists, and National Hispanic Recognition Scholars
3. Acquired from National Merit Scholarship Corporation website –
4. Acquired from The College Board website –

‘Right People, Right Idea, and Right Time’

The dean of the School of Business at Fresno Pacific University, Dennis Langhofer, Ed.D, talks about the founding and past twenty years of development for the Degree Completion Program.

Fresno, California

Designed for former students, now working professionals, Fresno Pacific University’s (FPU) Degree Completion Program is suited to accommodate a professional’s work schedule, unique academic history, and limited access to educational facilities. Through the Degree Completion Program, a private Christian college has carved out a successful niche for returning students in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley over the past twenty years. To learn more, I met the dean of the Business School at Fresno Pacific University, Dennis Langhofer, Ed.D, for lunch and discussion.

Dennis LanghoferDean Langhofer was the Interim Director of FPU’s Degree Completion program when it began back in 1991, and he remained in that position for much of the decade. “The first five years were a struggle,” said Dean Langhofer after taking a moment to reflect back on the Degree Completion Program’s origins. According to the former Interim Director, the issues began when the program was developed outside the traditional FPU curriculum. To accommodate the prospective students “we had to change our general education and language requirements,” says Dean Langhofer before conceding that this change was somewhat “foreign to traditional academia” at the university.

With an expression of appreciation, Dean Langhofer relays that the program maintained the necessary independence to get established, which was afforded by then Academic Vice President Gerald Winkleman, Ph.D. The dean recalled how the program was sheltered from the pressure of voices challenging the legitimacy of the degree. Knowing that there would be increased scrutiny, his stated mission was to ensure a curriculum that was “different, but equivalent in quality” while relying on the legitimacy obtained from adhering to WASC [1] accreditation standards. Dean Langhofer also believes, in regards to the original detractors, that the program results “won a lot of them over.”

Another challenge in starting the Degree Completion Program was “getting the resources to grow with limited dollars,” states Dean Langhofer. Even with the initial funding obstacles the program did grow. In fact, the Degree Completion Program has established three regional centers and expanded to offer seven different programs in six different disciplines. [2] The initial program was developed for business students and it took six years before the next one was offered in Christian ministries. There are different challenges that come with experiencing growth, cautions the dean, including sustaining what he calls “smart growth.” To meet these new challenges he stated that the program had to ensure the quality of education while continuing to provide a true baccalaureate experience for each new program developed or new regional center established.

Something happened, explains Dean Langhofer, as the program advanced and matured – revenue from these programs became a critical part of the university’s funding and thereby “sustaining FPU as a whole.” Because of the significant role played in the university by the Degree Completion Program, both academically and financially, the programs were absorbed back into the respective schools in 2008. This transition removed the Degree Completion Program’s independence from the various schools in the university, but Dean Langhofer went on to assert that while some things have changed there are some non-negotiable elements to the program.

During its founding, the faculty and administrators agreed an important element would be “that the program should be cohort based, and this has served us well,” says Dean Langhofer. He goes on to suggest that this class structure created a “loyalty to the program and to each other” regarding the students. Other constants are the devotionals in which the class participates together during each session as well as the students’ preparation and sharing of food. The dean reiterates the point that incorporating “food is critical” in connecting the cohort participants and to “bond them together as a group.” He described, in a variety of ways, the Degree Completion Program’s goal for the students to create a support structure by focusing on one another’s spiritual well being while feeding their minds and bodies. The act of providing a support structure is the reason the dean believes many former students maintain a passion for the program and their individual cohort.

When asked the reason for his sustained passion about the Degree Completion Program, Dean Langhofer shared his own higher learning experience, which included starting college at the age of twenty-five. He then shared about the experience of obtaining a masters degree at thirty-one and starting his doctoral studies at fifty-eight. This was a “lifelong learning mandate,” says the dean and it helped him to relate with students returning to higher education in the Degree Completion Program.

In a similar way to promoting the idea of a lifelong learning experience, Dean Langhofer shares that initiating and building a successful academic program means “never assum[ing the work] is finished.” An example of the continuing work of the program is the ongoing investment in its faculty, advises the dean. Faculty development in the Degree Completion Program includes providing coaching opportunities through mixing the team by paring an “experienced instructor with a less experienced.” In the end, the dean says that the success of a dynamic program requires starting with the “right idea” at the “right time,” but it is above all dependent on having the “right people.”

Mr. Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

Mr. Freeman would like to extend a special thank you to Cindy Steele, Executive Director of Regional Centers at Fresno Pacific University, for providing additional background information on the Degree Completion Program.

1. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
2. Acquired from Fresno Pacific University website –