Will Collins made the switch from corporate work to teaching and leading students of color. He says the move has fed his soul.
His mom—a lifelong elementary school teacher, beloved by her students— warned Will Collins, BS ’04, about the perils of becoming an educator. “You know how parents are,” Collins recalls, “wanting to protect their children from needless pressure and hardship. She was like, ‘[teaching] doesn’t pay enough; it’s such hard work.’
“But,” he adds, “we always do the things our parents tell us not to do.”
It turns out the calling to teach was hereditary for Collins, and it eventually lured him out of a corporate career and into a classroom in the Chicago area.
After six post-undergrad years working for Target and Home Depot, Collins “decided to take a step back and sort of interrogate the work I was doing: Was working in the corporate sector speaking to and feeding my soul and purpose?”
The applied economics major says he liked the business world well enough, but education beckoned. Back living in his hometown of Chicago after a decade in Minneapolis and Atlanta, he realized just how much of an influence his mother had been on him—and on generations of kids.
“My mom is a 32-year-veteran of Chicago public schools. I always admired her,” Collins says. “I’m an only child. She put everything she had into me and I always understood [education] as a path to success.”
Today Collins is national vice president of development and external affairs at the Surge Institute, whose mission is nurturing leaders of color in the urban education sphere. His road to that role included six years of classroom teaching at his southside Chicago high school alma mater, while he earned a master’s degree in curriculum studies and administration from DePaul.
“I love the classroom; I love working with students. Not just academic material, but real-life skills,” he says. “The greatest reward was seeing my students come into high school as timid freshmen and leave as really confident young adults. My influence was critical in a lot of students’ lives, and I say that humbly now because I’ve been able to see how far they’ve gone.” (Several of Collins’ former students were even part of his wedding last summer.)
A few years into teaching, Collins began contemplating how he might “scale my personal impact and serve students and families I would never otherwise get to meet.” He’d heard about an organization called Education Pioneers, a group that offers fellowships for business professionals wanting to deploy their knowledge and skills to help transform education; Collins applied and won a spot. “It opened my eyes,” he says, to different ways he might help make a difference at the systems level.
Collins went to work for OneGoal, an education equity organization promoting high school graduation and college readiness for students from under-resourced communities. While there, he learned about the Surge Institute, and successfully landed a Surge fellowship. Surge emphasizes cultivating education leaders who look like the communities they serve and that resonated deeply with Collins. He also knew from experience how vital this is. “Students have to see what they can be,” Collins says. “It’s about getting those adults in front of them; showing them, here’s a model for you to think about as you craft your own future.”
Founded in Chicago, Surge currently operates in three other cities: Oakland, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. The one-year fellowship trains leaders of color “who are working in the youth-serving ecosystem. Not just in schools, but anywhere people are serving on behalf of youth: juvenile justice, law, policy, nonprofits, and more,” Collins explains. “There is so much value in having these folks at the table. When kids of color win, everyone wins.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought business as usual to a halt this spring, Surge has pivoted to bring fellowship meetings, trainings, and other events to a virtual format. And recognizing that communities of color will be hardest hit by the virus and its effects, the organization launched a relief fund April 1 to help students, families, and educators most impacted by the crisis.
The move to online instruction—in Chicago and elsewhere—has highlighted one aspect of educational inequity in particular, Collins says: the digital divide. Students in households with spotty or nonexistent wifi, and who lack laptops or must share one, are falling further behind than their peers with more resources. “Many students have not had the resources to make the switch,” he says, so the work of organizations like Surge will likely become more urgent than ever.
Collins turned down several Ivy League schools to accept a full-ride scholarship to the University of Minnesota 20 years ago, and it was the right choice, he says. “I met my best friends at the U—lifelong friends.” He calls his adviser, Karl Lorenz (former director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Sciences), one of his chief mentors. “He was my biggest cheerleader and motivator,” Collins says. “He instilled this idea that I already had within me the right tools for success.”
Helping other young people of color experience the same kind of success and fulfillment Collins feels today is a joy, he says. “I love the work that we’re doing. I have never felt as empowered as I feel right now.”
This story, written by Susan Maas, was originally published in the summer 2020 issue of the Minnesota Alumni Magazine.