This article appears in The Haven Magazine Fall 2017 edition.
Creating Opportunity: LHU and the Milton Hershey School
It’s impossible to dream about something you’ve never seen. Haven alumnus Doug Oliver ‘98 began seeing the world in new ways when he arrived at the Milton Hershey School as an independent, smart, and unruly 14-year-old from Philadelphia. “I grew up in Philadelphia, in a low-income household,” says Oliver. “While I was short on money, I was rich with family. I had a mom who would have done anything for me. She wanted a different outcome for my life than she’d had for hers.”
As a child, Oliver says he had a lot invested in him that had nothing to do with money. “I had aunts and uncles, a large family network, all of whom cared about what happened to me.” After bouncing around six different schools in eight years of education, Oliver’s mother knew something needed to change if her son was to have a shot at a better life.
“Friends of our family had three kids enrolled at Milton Hershey. At 12-years-old I was enrolled in a dangerous school and my mother sat me down and had an honest conversation with me about whether or not I wanted to go. We knew it would provide the stability we couldn’t find in Philly. I met the social and economic demographics and in 1989 I enrolled in the Milton Hershey School and never looked back.”
Oliver’s story is similar to many of the children and young adults that enroll in the Milton Hershey School (MHS). Founded in 1909 by Milton and Catherine Hershey, the Hershey, PA school provides a positive, structured home life and state-of-the-art educational experience—cost free—to more than 2,000 students.
Today, MHS is among the best private schools in the nation. Students live on campus in a student home with house parents and a group of 8-12 peers of the same age and gender. One of the school’s main goals is to provide students the opportunity to develop life skills for future success. The educational experience offers students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade a wealth of academic opportunities through small class sizes and highly individualized attention. The numerous extracurricular options support a variety of interests and range from athletics to agricultural, academic, and religious programs.
“For me, arriving at MHS, changed my perspective,” says Oliver. And he’s not just referring to the cornfields or the sound of crickets at night. “I was used to urban life, so coming to a place of open sky and open fields was like coming to a new country.” He says that for the first time in his life, his perspective changed. “I realized early on at MHS that different points of view existed and there were other ways of thinking than those I’d previously known. I realize now that the core of diversity is difference and being exposed to a diverse set of experiences at that point in my life was huge for me.”
Oliver credits the rigors MHS follows with molding him into the man he is today. “At 14 I was not a grown man yet, but I kind of felt like it. MHS provided me a discipline my mom couldn’t. Through discipline and character building, the structure of the school doubled down on the home family’s efforts and gave me the skills of integrity and character—of doing what you say you’ll do—that I still have today.”
It’s an all hands on deck culture for student success in Oliver’s view. He says, “The function of MHS, as I see it and experienced it, is to prepare kids for lives of meaning and self-sufficiency. I always felt that no matter what door I turned to, coach, teacher, house parent, they all had the same mission. That culture wasn’t’ unique to me. Every MHS kid gets that.”
With strong skills on the basketball court and a desire to teach secondary math, LHU stood out to Oliver for a variety of reasons. After arriving on campus, Oliver developed an interest in communications fueled by his proclivity for writing and admiration for Professor Karen Kline—who Oliver says once kicked him out of class for arriving unprepared with the assignment. “I have never shown up to a room unprepared since,” says Oliver. He changed his career aspirations and hasn’t looked back.
Oliver excelled on the court as a member of the men’s basketball team and still holds a place in the LHU record books—ranking ninth for all-time career rebounds.
After graduating with a degree in Mass Communications in 1998, he went on to earn a master’s from LaSalle University and an MBA from Saint Joseph’s University. Oliver has spent his career in PR in Philadelphia, working for ad agencies, nonprofits and eventually serving as press secretary for Mayor Michael Nutter. In 2015, he ran for Philadelphia mayor. During his campaign, he gained widespread respect for his idea-based, high energy, grassroots campaign. Through the campaign, Oliver established himself as a creative thinker, a problem solver, and a symbol of a new generation of thought leadership.
Today he serves as Director of Communications for PECO, the largest electric and gas distribution company in Pennsylvania. Looking back, Oliver believes the combination of his educational experiences opened his eyes to a new definition of diversity. “Before arriving in Lock Haven, I didn’t realize that poverty existed outside of Philadelphia. It seemed like the rest of the world had it figured out. Driving across the state, I realized that people everywhere struggle. It was the first time I became cognizant of that fact, and that has really shaped my understanding of diversity in important ways.”
Barb Nichols ’84 is one of several Lock Haven University alumni currently employed at MHS. She earned a degree in Psychology and sees the work she does at MHS as an opportunity to pay forward the education she received at LHU. As Director of Staff Recruiting, Nichols and her staff work hard to find the best possible candidates to work with MHS students. She shares, “At the end of the day, I need to feel that we’ve done our utmost to find the right persons for the roles we fill which include residential, education, administration, trades, and more.”
Work doesn’t feel like work to Nichols who believes wholeheartedly in the MHS mission. “The fact that Milton Hershey School is for lower income children and is working to break the cycle of poverty in their lives makes it an incredibly fulfilling place to contribute.” She adds, “It’ a game changing organization for the students that enroll. They receive a home, food, clothing, pre-K through 12th grade education, and can earn college funding. Everything is paid for including their extra-curricular experiences.”
Funding for the school continues to come from the Hershey Company and Hershey Entertainment. Nichols says she encourages people to support the school by eating Hershey’s chocolate.
Nichols career path started at LHU when she was hired as a freshman to work in the admissions office.
“Working in admissions at LHU directly led to my career today. I worked all four years in the Admissions Office, including breaks and summer. Once I graduated, I was hired by the department in an interim role between my Bachelor’s degree and starting my Master’s at IUP. The other members of the team provided me opportunities to learn and do new things. The experiences and guidance I received there led to my career today. And now, I get to pay it forward. Milton Hershey School encourages all staff to be involved with and support students personally. I have the opportunity to mentor students and I love that I can do that. They are our future,” says Nichols.
Preparing students for the future rests at the heart of Annette Cole-Gill’s ’86 job. As the Head of the Elementary Division at MHS, her mission is to nurture and educate children. She says, “We want to make sure our students develop relationships in which they feel cared about and loved. They can’t develop from an educational standpoint without that.”
Cole-Gill credits the education she received at LHU with providing the strong academic foundation that prepared her for career success, as well as a diversity of experiences and perspectives that fundamentally impacted her world view. “LHU gave me a tremendous classroom learning experience. As an education major, LHU got me into the local schools immediately. Many universities don’t offer that until it’s time to student teach. Having those early classroom experiences stuck with me,” she notes.
Just like at MHS, Cole-Gill acknowledges that much of the learning at LHU took place outside the classroom. “Many of friends at LHU were international students. One was from Cameroon and one was from Malta. LHU also gave me the opportunity to study abroad and complete my student teaching in Nottingham, England. Being in classrooms and living with people different from me, both in Lock Haven and abroad, opened my world to other values and perspectives. It not only broadened my view of the world, it prepared me to expose students a wider understanding.”
After earning her degree in elementary education, Cole-Gill went on to earn a master’s in international education global studies from NYU. After five years teaching in New York at Harlem PS92, she began working at MHS. Those early New York teaching experiences influenced her work at MHS, and gave her an appreciation for the resources available through the generosity of the school’s founders. “I learned a lot working in Harlem,” she says. “I was so equipped from a formal instruction perspective. But nothing can prepare you to face a room full of students who didn’t eat the night before or didn’t get a full night’s rest or are pulling cockroaches out of their book-bags.”
For students at MHS, those hardships don’t exist. According to Cole-Gill, “MHS offers the whole package. Students get a top-notch education, but their basic needs are also provided for and they’re learning emotional skills. We don’t make excuses because our kids come from poverty. Anyone can excel to high levels and we want them to find their niche and discover what they’ll be happy doing. But we also want to see them contribute and give back to their communities. Our teachers are equipped with resources and professional development that put them in a position to help kids to do all of those things.”
Fonati Ward-Abrowka is one of those kids that received help and a strong education at MHS. She went on to graduate from LHU in 2006 and now works as a Home Life Administrator at MHS. In many ways, her life has come full circle. “I enrolled in MHS in 1991 as a 3rd grader,” says Ward-Abrokwa. “I was the youngest of five girls from Trenton, New Jersey. Attending MHS was the best opportunity for me to get a great education.” Ward-Abrwoka’s family embraced the MHS experience knowing their daughter was receiving the best of both worlds with a supportive family behind her and a high-level education at her fingertips.
“At MHS, I was heavily involved from an early age. I ran track and field and played field hockey and basketball. I just loved that I had so many opportunities.” Her love for athletics eventually led Ward-Abrowka to LHU where she played field hockey and ran for the track team. As an athlete, she excelled on multiple fields. In 2002, she made history as a member of three Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) championship teams in one year. Ward-Abrowka competed on the 2001 PSAC championship field hockey team and was a member of both championship indoor and outdoor track and field squads
Just like at MHS, she got involved in numerous campus activities from the black student union to serving as an admissions ambassador and clubs associated with her health and physical education major. “I was fortunate to transition from MHS’ to the same supportive environment at LHU. All of my professors had an open door policy and were incredibly helpful. I felt incredibly supported during my time at The Haven.”
For her, the real-world experience of leaving home prepared her to serve students in the future. She shares, “Coming to Lock Haven was a bit of a culture shock for me. I learned quickly that you won’t always be in an environment where everyone has had the same experiences. People come from different places and different cultures and they may see the world differently than you do. It’s up to you to form your own culture and LHU really allowed me to spread my wings in that way. Now it’s a message I share with students at MHS.”
Upon earning her degree from LHU, It was an easy choice to want to give back to the school that had given her so much. Today, Ward-Abrowka has been with the MHS for ten years. She and her husband Kwasi Abrwoka ‘06, also a dual MHS and LHU alumnus, live on the MHS campus. Her role as a Home Life Administrator involves supervising house parents that work in student homes with elementary age students. “We are the wrap-around for student needs and home-life,” she shares. “If they are in a crisis, they (the house parents) call me. If they need assistance, they call me. My role is also supportive of academics, so if a house parent sees that a student needs additional support, I will aid in getting those additional services.”
Reflecting back on her MHS experience, she says that access to those additional services truly enriched her life. “Growing up in the inner city, my parents did the best they could with what they had. But, I was able to experience things through MHS that wouldn’t have been possible in Trenton, New Jersey. In Hershey, I often went out in nature, hiking, fishing, and deer spotting. I took a trip to Maine and grew up with kids from all over the country. Even playing field hockey is something I many not have had an opportunity to do without MHS. That exposure to diverse experiences in and outside the classroom—it changes and enriches kids’ lives. I know because it changed mine and it changes the lives of the students I work with every day.”