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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MATC Student Stories: Corey Lee went back to college to set example for his kids

two people in a radio studio
Emily Files
MATC graduate Corey Lee (right) and Dr. Michael Rosen, a retired MATC economics professor who founded the FAST Fund. The fund has provided emergency aid to hundreds of students, including Lee.

This month, WUWM is featuring four Milwaukee Area Technical College students, in conversation with people who have helped them on their education journeys.

In the last installment of the StoryCorps-inspired series, we hear from Corey Lee. He’s a father of two who graduated with a business management degree in December.

During his time at MATC, Corey turned to the faculty-run FAST Fund for emergency financial aid. He got to know Michael Rosen, a retired economics professor who founded the FAST Fund. The fund has helped hundreds of students stay in school.

The two of them sat down to talk about Corey’s education experience.

Their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, is transcribed below.

Michael Rosen: Corey, how you doing?

Corey Lee: Good, you?

Rosen: Good. So where did you go to high school and what did you do after you graduated?

Lee: I went to Milwaukee Hamilton High School. After I graduated, I worked at Educators Credit Union for about another two years after graduation. And then after Educators, I went to U.S. Bank and various other financial institutions.

Rosen: Did you plan to go to college during this time or were you just interested in working?

Lee: Growing up seeing my mom go to college — yes, it was always the plan for me. In school they would push everybody to go to college. Yeah, that was one of the goals.

I started off at UW-Waukesha. I was about 19. Ended up having a son, and then I failed my exam, my math exam. After that I stopped going to school for a couple years and learned how to be a dad. Once I learned how to be a dad, I went back to school in 2017. I took off maybe about five years, so 2012 and then I went back in 2017.

I’m a big advocate for being a role model, especially for people younger than me, such as my kids. So I went back and made sure that I finished, just to show them that they can do it.

There are some late nights where you have kids running around and playing with toys and things and you’re trying to get an exam done or some homework done, which can be a little challenging. But you just gotta have the mental toughness to push through it.

I’m not an 18 or 19-year-old or anything like that, so I do know the stigma of younger kids going to school and having a debt and everything. I believe that at any age you can go back to school, it’s not a race. Go at your own pace.

Full conversation between Corey Lee & Michael Rosen.

Rosen: So how old were you when you went back to school?

Lee: Uh, 2017, five years ago. I was about 23, 24.

Rosen: So what’s been most challenging for you in trying to get your degree? Which congratulations — I know you got it.

Lee: Thank you. Honestly, like any student at any school, getting up to sign up because you know how hard maybe that last semester was and you’re like, "I gotta go through this again?" But just having the willpower to get up and continue to do it.

I know some people from high school might have taken some courses that carried over into college, but I didn’t. So I had to start fresh and go from there. And then I had to take a couple classes — you know, you have to test in to MATC or any other college. And math, that’s not one of my favorite things. So I had to take like an extra math class — you know, the basics, the understudy classes.

So I don’t know, I think that just getting up to sign up for school and then actually going and finishing is a great feat for no matter how many years you have to do it.

Rosen: In terms of financial pressures, can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, you were a working parent, independent, relying on yourself. A lot of students at MATC, most of them are working, going to school, raising kids, and there’s a lot of financial pressures that the traditional college student doesn’t have.

Lee: So, my entire family moved to Arizona eight or nine years ago. I ended up moving to Shorewood into a one bedroom — it was a small apartment, but it was a starter. And the bills, the rent was high. I remember my lights getting turned off because I had so much stuff to take care of. The balance built up to about $650. I didn’t have $650 at the time. And I was behind about a month or two on rent.

I reached out to the FAST Fund. You guys really helped me out in some tough times, I really do appreciate it. Being in school and not having any help from my parents or anything, I kind of was prideful on just trying to take care of things on my own, like a lot of students are.

I’ve been helped by the FAST Fund at least three or four times, minimum. And I really appreciate you guys helping me out.

Rosen: Well, we’re glad we could help you out, Corey. And we’re glad that you graduated. We saw that you, like many of the students we work with, face challenges that are real.

We take a lot of pride in the fact that we were able to help you struggle through it. But if it hadn’t been for your fortitude and your commitment, and your hard work, it wouldn’t have happened. So now what are you planning on doing?

Lee: My goal now, I went right back to school for my real estate certificate for a real estate salesperson in order to take the test to become a real estate agent.

So I have that, and then I have my business management degree as well as my experience in the financial field, I believe 13 years now, so I’m gonna take all of that, do my real estate things on the side, learn that business and then try to start my own business, which is why I got a business degree opposed to an accounting degree.

Rosen: What lessons — you know, you mentioned your son — what lessons from your experience do you hope to impart to your sons?

Lee: The first thing is to make sure they grow up in the proper environments, starting with the neighborhoods — which, I didn’t grow up in a good one. Teaching them how to work.

I don’t want them to feel forced to go to college, to be honest. I want them to make that decision. Maybe you want to take up a trade, or you can go to college, maybe you want to go to an HBCU for the college experience, I don’t know. But I feel like in my era when I was growing up, college was pushed.

Let’s be real, there are a lot of — when you’re 18, 19, you’re not financially all the way smart. I think we’ve all been there. But I want to make sure that my mistakes aren’t made by my kids. I can’t say they won’t make mistakes, but I’ll try to minimize them at least.

This series was produced with help from the MATC FAST Fund in connecting with students.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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