Michigan program helps student reconnect with college

By Kayla Gahagan

Andrew Denton is on a new path to a rewarding career in the advanced manufacturing industry, and the Michigan Reconnect Scholarship, coupled with some hard work, is to thank.

“It’s literally changed my life in the course of a few months,” says the 32-year-old from Ypsilanti of his scholarship. “I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if I hadn’t gotten that.”

After high school, Denton completed a couple semesters of college. But unsure of his plans, he dropped out to work various jobs, including running a music recording studio.

“I was bouncing around to a lot of different jobs. The music recording studio was a passion project but didn’t pay all of my bills,” he says. “I was tired of getting stuck at low pay, working hard with no promotions or raises. I realized I needed to do something and get paid for a skill.”

Denton considered becoming an electrician, but returning to college would have been unlikely.

Opening doors

The Reconnect scholarship opened the door for him. “I thought school was out for me, so this scholarship was a huge deal. I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for it otherwise,” Denton says.

The Reconnect program was introduced during Covid-19 to help adults return to college to earn a degree and better their quality of life. According to the state, 75% of Michigan jobs in the future will require an education beyond high school, and individuals who have a two-year degree can earn $7,500 more annually.

As of Fall 2023, nearly 3,500 students have enrolled at Washtenaw Community College (WCC) with Reconnect funding.

Paid apprenticeships

After enrolling at WCC, one of his instructors encouraged Denton to apply for the new FAME work-and-learn apprenticeship program. FAME is an acronym for the national Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education program offering college students on-the-job training while they’re in school.

WCC leads as the only higher education FAME institution in the state. Industry partners are anchor Toyota Motor North America, as well as Orbitform, Novi Precision, Lomar Machine & Tool Company and Caster Concepts.

At WCC, Denton is pursuing an Associate in Applied Science in Mechatronics-Robotics and Automated Systems. Mechatronics is a multi-disciplinary field that involves robotics and automated systems to develop skills for the advanced manufacturing industry.

Denton committed to the 18-month FAME program, which set him up with a 30-hour a week paid internship at Orbitform in Jackson. He works three days a week and is on campus for classes two days a week. The days are long and full, but well worth it, he says.

“It’s pretty cool because I’m learning a lot. You learn things at school and then you go to work the next day and you see that very thing happening on the job. I never really felt invested in my earlier jobs; it was just a means to an end. But here I want to go to work and do a good job,” he says.

He can see himself staying with Orbitform after the apprenticeship or possibly transferring to a four-year college or university to pursue an electrical engineering degree.

Denton credits his WCC instructors and fellow students for his successes in a supportive environment.

“The instructors are very good teachers and always there if you have questions. They told us when we started that the teachers are here because they want to be here. If they wanted, they could probably go work in their field and make double, but they are here because they care,” Denton says.

This article originally appeared here.

Kayla Gahagan

is a writer with Washtenaw Community College in Michigan.