Over the past few years, Chicago-based Albion College alumni Austin Baidas and Larry Schook have been working on a project to send academically qualified/financially challenged students from Chicago to their small liberal arts college, located in Michigan.
Since Albion has small class sizes and professors who are committed to becoming student's mentors as well as a tight-knit campus, Baidas said this means students do not fall through the cracks and leave. Baidas explained that, in the past 30 years, 73 percent of Albion graduates from Chicago return to the city to being their adult lives. He sees their project as an opportunity to positively affect many neighborhoods, not just the ones where families can afford to send their kids to college.
"There are neighborhoods in Chicago that have problems with violence, lack of economic opportunity and other issues," said Baidas. "I believe if we are going to solve these issues we have to give smart people in these neighborhoods a way forward and that includes a college education. Albion not only trains people to follow a career path, the college also gives them the tools to become citizens who are involved in their community."
Baidas said their goal is to finance 50 students a year over the four years of college, adding that fundraising is their primary focus because the gap right now is about $10,000 per student per year. Baidas and Schook want the program to be fiscally sustainable for many years.
"Albion College has long been committed to students from Chicago and giving them the tools of a Liberal Arts education to change their lives, their neighborhoods and the city," said Schook. "Austin's work, as a proud Albion College alum, has been key to connecting Albion with the Chicago community, raising money and building bridges with the alumni network. He is an exemplar of the Albion College tradition."
One of the many students the project helps is Albion College LGBriTs Co-President Raylan Grace, who identifies as pansexual.
"I chose Albion because I wanted to be my own independent person and the distance from Chicago gives me more of an opportunity to make new life choices," said Grace. "Being successful at Albion means I will be the first in my family to graduate from college which will start the trend of other family members dreaming of a college education. I am so grateful to be a part of Austin's program. I can always ask him for help when I am concerned about my college experience."
"I have also been helping connect students into the Chicago alumni network for internships and career opportunities," said Baidas. "Many first generation college students after graduation make only 66 percent of what their more affluent peers do. My fellow alums can help close the gap for these talented students. I am excited to see them succeed in their careers and make a difference in their neighborhoods and the city as a whole."
Another way Baidas gives back to his college is as a visiting scholar. He has done this three times over the past year where he speaks with students either individually or to classes about his experiences in business, finance, government, non-profits and politics.
"I try to bring the real world to campus with these talks," said Baidas.
Baidas grew up in the Detroit suburbs and spent time working at his family's RV dealership as a teenager after school and on Saturdays. The most important message his father imparted on him, that his grandfather also imparted on his father, is to get a college education. When Baidas was searching for a college to attend he discovered Albion and its Gerstacker Institute for Professional Management. He chose Albion for the Gerstacker program and its small class sizes, and graduated in 1992 with a BA in economics and management. Baidas said working in his family's RV store stoked his interest in business and that is why he chose those college majors.
In addition to his interest in business, Baidas has always had a passion for public policy and politics. This manifested itself most acutely during the 2008 economic crash.
"I believe that bad public policy caused the economic crash of 2008 and the great recession of 2009," said Baidas. "Seeing the job losses, financial distress and uncertainty that my friends and neighbors went through during this time created a passion in me to get involve to prevent another man-made disaster like this in the future."
This led to Baidas' involvement with then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's administration to turn around state government. He served as the associate budget director and assistant director of the Department of Central Management Services for four years.
"During my tenure, my colleagues and I were able to save taxpayers money by closing prisons, consolidating space to eliminate leases and reducing the cost of retiree healthcare without cutting benefits," said Baidas.
Baidas moved on to the Obama administration, where he was the senior advisor to the administrator in the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In this role he "developed the Agency's business plan that tied directly to the agency's budget and operations goals."
For the past 12 years, Baidas has also been a partner at Creekside Communities which acquires, finances and manages 11 manufactured home communities in Michigan, Ohio and Texas.
Baidas was also a senior executive fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2004.
"This was an executive education program that condensed the highlights of a master's of public administration degree into a very intense, six-day-a-week, monthlong program," said Baidas. "At the time, I was the youngest student in the class joining approximate 50 senior executives primarily from the federal government."
Baidas explained that in addition to giving back to his college, he is a Howard Brown Health board member and serves on the finance and development committees. He previously served on the board at the Center on Halsted and was part of the team that made the Town Hall LGBT Senior Apartments happen.
"Because Albion College and Howard Brown Health directly benefit Chicago, I felt in a Trumpian world I also needed to do something internationally focused which would make a difference so I joined the Chicago Committee of Human Rights Watch," said Baidas. "In April, I made a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress on human rights issues, and in June, I attended the Human Rights Watch Summit to hear from researchers around the world about what issues they are working on to bring about transparency and policy changes."
When Baidas is not working or doing non-profit volunteering, he spends as much time as he can with his five nephews and one niece ( ages 8 to 15 ), plays CMSA flag football, and campaigns for state political candidates J.B. Pritzker and Kwame Raoul. He will also be participating in TPAN's Chicago Ride for AIDS this fall.