M³ early college graduates persevere, thrive through disrupted school year

The 54 MPS high school seniors who completed the M3 Pathways early college program this year set new bars for achievement while persevering through an academic year of dramatic changes.

Navigating a spring semester disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, these dedicated students secured a head start for the next stage of their educational careers. Early college seniors like Sharifah Bibi Nur Muhamad are shining examples of the kind of impact that the M3 partnership can have in helping to close equity gaps and boost student success in Milwaukee.

“It’s a blessing to be part of this program,” she said. “Thankfully, this program helped give me access to the resources that I needed. This is a great opportunity to further my education and experience what college life is like.”

M3 (pronounced M-cubed) is the award-winning initiative involving the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and Milwaukee Public Schools. The early college program, known as the M3 Pathways program, provides MPS seniors an opportunity to experience the rigors of college life by attending courses on the MATC and UWM campuses.

“Going through the program told me a lot about myself,” said student Jcyon Coleman-McGee. “It really got my work ethic going because in college there’s no room to slack off at all.”

Among the highlights for the M3 Pathways Class of 2020:

  • The 54 seniors from 16 MPS high schools who completed the program represented a 70% increase compared to the inaugural class of 2019.
  • This year, the Pathways program began during the fall semester and expanded to the full academic year. The pilot program in 2018–19 was limited to the spring semester.
  • Students earned up to 20 transferable college credits in core courses such as English, math, and science. Collectively, the group earned 887 college credits.
  • A related M3 early college program allowed a group of students at Milwaukee High School of the Arts to collectively earn 135 college credits in math.

The average cost per credit at most four-year institutions is $337, meaning that the more than 1,000 credits earned through these early college programs are valued at about $340,000.

Nur Muhamad and Coleman-McGee took some time to share more details about their backgrounds and early college experiences.

A cherished opportunity

Four years after arriving in the United States with her family as Rohingya refugees from Malaysia, Nur Muhamad is cherishing the opportunity to go to college. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar who are denied citizenship and basic rights by their own government.

“When I lived in Malaysia, I didn’t have a right to pursue education,” said Nur Muhamad, who graduated from Bradley Tech High School this year.

Nur Muhamad excels in math. But she is still learning English as a second language, making the English course she took through the early college program more challenging after classes went online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her hard work paid off. She’s planning to attend UW–Parkside in the fall, with hopes of a career as a computer programmer or web developer. The M3 Pathways program offered her a glimpse into what college life might be like academically and socially.

“I never expected this. I thought I would never make friends and receive good grades in college,” said Nur Muhamad, who also credited her parents for playing a big role in helping with her studies. “It’s a huge accomplishment for me to complete one of my goals of having better grades.”

Long-term benefits

Coleman-McGee enjoyed the structure that the early college program provided with classes in the morning during a typical day. After class, he could follow up with instructors, focus on homework, or perform volunteer work.

Coleman-McGee had to make adjustments when classes went online. While he no longer had to travel to school, he also had less interaction with teachers.

“I actually took a lot more time than I usually would to go over the lessons and make sure that I have a grasp on everything,” said Coleman-McGee, who graduated from Milwaukee High School of the Arts this spring.

He plans to attend Benedict College in South Carolina to study early childhood education. Ultimately, he would like to return to Milwaukee to work as an elementary school teacher.

Coleman-McGee also had to balance his studies with his job at Walmart, where he works about 22 hours a week. He appreciates the long-term benefits of his Pathways early college experience.

“With the M3 program, it’s helping me get out of having to work to survive by giving me the chance to earn these college credits,” he said. “With these extra college credits, my work schedule will be a lot lighter because I won’t have to pay for so much.”