Gail Ford, director of UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program.

Gail Ford’s path to college started when not she, but her younger sister, was accepted into a precollege program in eighth grade through Ferris State University in Michigan.

Ford, who grew up in Detroit, attended events and Ferris campus visits with her sister throughout high school. Once it was time to prepare for college, Ferris was the only school she applied to. Her sister ended up at another school, but the impact of precollege opportunities and mentors has stuck with Ford ever since.

In October, Ford began in her new role as director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence. PEOPLE, which started in 1999, admits eighth-grade students at Wisconsin partner schools to help prepare them for college, especially UW System universities. It also offers a college program and potential scholarships for precollege program participants who enroll at UW-Madison.

It has now been almost a decade since Ford started at UW-Madison. After a recent external evaluation of the program, PEOPLE hopes to continue making its services more accessible in cities beyond Madison. And with a baby on the way, big changes are on the way for Ford all around.

So you piggybacked off your sister (to go to college)!

I did, but we call that the ripple effect. Once you have one sibling that goes to college you're setting expectations for the rest of the family. And you have somebody in the home that has actually walked that path that can tell you all the landmines to avoid, all the pain points to avoid, to make your experience a little bit easier. So that was really a life-changing generation of my family to be able to access college in that way.

PEOPLE emphasizes the importance of not just a family support network, but just people who are willing to work with the youth to make the impact of a program like this work. This can’t just exist in a vacuum. Can you tell me a little bit about your grandmother or the people in your life who made education a priority?

Research tells us that if a child has at least one adult in their life who is supporting their educational goals, they’re more likely to go to college. And I rarely meet a parent that doesn’t want their kid to go to college — that’s never the problem, right? It’s not a question of ambition or will, but how do they get there? They need a resource pathway to be able to get there. For me, that person was Tyrone Collins.

Tyrone was an (Ferris State University) admissions counselor. He was the person in my life who really not only told me that I could go to college, but told me how to get there. Like, “You’re gonna have to do an application, you need to save your money so you can pay for your application fee, you need to do an essay, you need to take the ACT.” The statistic about having one adult in your life supporting your educational goals was literally my lived experience.

When I was in school as a student leader, I participated in a lot of precollege programming initiatives. We would go around the state and talk to kids who were in foster care, underprivileged students, about how to go to college and how they could be where we were. So my college access work really began in undergrad and I was able to do that as a professional, both in the nonprofit sector and now in education. My story compliments my professional experience and, when you put those two things together, I just have a really well-rounded view and approach.

Did you first go to a non-profit after graduating?

Yes, I used to work at a nonprofit in Detroit called Alternatives for Girls. It was the only shelter in Detroit that took girls who were minors that had babies. As the program manager for our education department, I would put on summer camps, after-school tutoring, a mentorship program.

I’ve been engaged in this work for a long time, but it’s one of the great joys of my life. I really do enjoy giving back in this way, because I think that our students are never not capable. They’re not flawed, there’s nothing wrong with them. The system is flawed and, until we can fix the system, we have to have these support programs in place to try to remedy that so they have the best chance of success because their win is our win as a society, period.

And then you came to UW-Madison.

I worked at Alternatives for Girls for about two years, and then my husband (Michael Ford, also known as “the Hip-Hop architect”) got a job offer here. I didn’t have it on my bucket list to live in Wisconsin, but I ended up here.

Tell me about what you did as a staffer and as the interim assistant director at PEOPLE.

We’re trying to make sure there’s equitable services no matter where you are in the state. When I first started with the program, depending on where you were geographically, your experiences and the services you had access to were different. We’re opening eight new tutoring sites in Milwaukee, and we have a Milwaukee office that just opened last year that has seven full-time staff members, including four college advisers that are gonna work with a caseload of up to 100 students.

Can you tell me about one specific experience or student that you’ve worked with during your time at PEOPLE that really exemplifies the mission of what you want this program to do?

Savion Castro was in our program starting in the sixth grade and ended up coming to UW-Madison and is currently a member of the Madison School Board. He always was into politics, policy, social justice and change. He would come into the college scholar lab all the time to take a nap and talk to our precollege advisers. They would have spirited debates about school board policies, and he would always say, “I want to be in government. I want to be in politics.” When he was appointed to the school board, my heart just was smiling for days because I know that we were a part of that journey to allow him to be where he wanted to be in life — and quick. Our students have the capacity but, again, it’s all about the how and if they get social capital and the resources to make those dreams a reality. And Savion was one of those students.

You mentioned your experience at Ferris and the specific challenges of being at a PWI. I’m curious as to what you see at UW-Madison that might mirror those experiences.

Consistently the data shows (Wisconsin) is not a good place for black people in particular. Every year when the data comes out for standardized testing the achievement gap between black students and majority students is the highest in the nation. So there definitely is a need here for the kind of work that I do, which can make it really rewarding but exhausting at the same time.

Me going to a PWI and learning to thrive in that kind of environment helps to inform my own leadership. When I first moved here, almost everybody I was meeting were transplants. They were coming from other places, then they leave. I’ve been here now for nine years, and somebody has to stay and do the work for the kids here that deserve a chance. Nine years isn’t exactly a long time, but I am very committed to trying to be a person who helps with that work in my own way for those students, because it really does make a difference.

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