“I stand before you as proof that with every dollar donated and every second of support for OMD scholars, future leaders can be created and people who otherwise have the potential to be great, but lack the resources to do so, can go on to fulfill that potential. The OMD community is more than a community. It is one huge family, and I will never lose my connection to my family.”
– Jarrett Adams, OMD Alumnus, Attorney at Law, National Innocence Project
In the fall of 2006, David Scherer, Rose Lizarraga and Michael Golden cofounded the One Million Degrees non-profit scholarship program, based in Chicago, Illinois. Motivated by the fact that more than 60 percent of the state’s post-secondary students attend community college – and had been failing out at a staggering rate – they designed and then fine-tuned an educational support model that would empower hard-working, low-income students to achieve success.
OMD would extend dollars to its scholars, but the founders knew that financial support was only the beginning. They realized that so many low-income community college students confront unique obstacles in their efforts to earn degrees. For this reason, OMD’s model also provides a suite of services that includes course-advising, academic tutoring and one-on-one coaching. OMD’s CEO, Paige Ponder, describes the program today as “an ecosystem of focused and intensive support, sustained encouragement, high accountability, and expansive social capital that has transformational effects, helping our scholars to become leaders in their families, schools, communities, and careers.”
In those early days, Michael and David banged on doors throughout the city of Chicago, stressing the value of community college, raising private funds, and building public support for the program. At the same time, Rose was already designing what has become one of the most acclaimed charitable fundraisers in the city: “OMD’s Annual Food & Wine Tasting Event.” Michael worked closely with lawmakers in the Illinois General Assembly to secure $250,000 from the state of Illinois, a public/private partnership that continues through today. Ten years later, OMD has secured more than $10 million and exponentially increased the program’s annual class from 25 students to over 700. Even more importantly, 70 percent of OMD scholars earn their Associate’s Degree within three years, and 86 percent of alumni are either employed, continuing their education, or both.
Michael continues to serve on the OMD board of directors and collaborates with public and private leaders to raise resources for the program. In 2012 he cofounded Complete The Degree, an affiliated program that recruits adults to return back to college, and provides advisory services to help them attain their degrees. Michael describes these projects in higher education empowerment as the heart and soul of his career:
“Working alongside dear friends and valued colleagues over the last decade to build One Million Degrees has easily been the most profound experience of my career. Seeing the dedication and hard work that is devoted daily by our board members, amazing staff, and the hundreds of scholars we serve is nothing short of humbling. I truly love this extended family, and I’m so grateful for having the opportunity to help our scholars to enhance their lives through the achievement of their goals.”