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Man on a mission

| Judy Berthiaume

D’Karlos Craig was two years into his UW-Eau Claire college career when a series of tragedies took the lives of eight of his family members and friends.

The deaths hit him hard, sending him into a deep depression.

He dropped out of school, living out of his car when he could not pay rent.

Homeless and depressed, he was running out of options when Dennis Beale stepped in.

“It was one of the most challenging times of my life,” D’Karlos says. “I was two days away from going back to north Minneapolis when I talked to Dennis again. I doubted myself, but Dennis never gave up on me. He encouraged me to come back to school, and this time I listened.”

Talk with many of the 100-plus Blugolds on Dennis Beale's list of advisees and you hear story after story about him stepping in to help, whether students are struggling with issues relating to academics or financial aid, or personal problems that interfere with their studies or life.

“My workday doesn’t end at 4:30 p.m.,” says Dennis, assistant director of Blugold Beginnings. “They all have my cell number, and know they can call me anytime, even if it’s 3 a.m. I’m always here for them.”

That 24/7 access reflects his commitment to the growing roster of UW-Eau Claire students he recruits, advises and mentors, all from marginalized groups.

A number of those students — including D’Karlos — grew up in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Indianapolis; students who had never heard of UW-Eau Claire until Dennis convinced them college is a way out and UW-Eau Claire is a path to a different life.

Why do they listen to Dennis?

Because when he talks about the power of higher education, he is sharing his life story.

“I know their stories because it's my story,” Dennis says. “I understand things that you could not understand if you didn’t share their background.”

Dennis was 3 when his dad walked out, leaving behind his wife, two young kids and thousands of dollars of debt.

“I watched my mom work two jobs and still struggle,” says Dennis, who grew up on Chicago's south side. “I know what it's like to have the lights and gas turned off and not to have meals and to see the eviction notices.”

He also knows what it is like to use higher education to pull himself out of that environment.

Dennis left Chicago to play college football in Iowa, where he met his best friend, Dylan Poesch, who later transferred to and graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2012.

Intrigued by Dylan's success, Dennis soon followed him to UW-Eau Claire, hoping it would be a better fit than Iowa.

“With my background, trusting someone is hard,” Dennis says. “But when I got here, Coach (Todd) Glaser and Joe Webb, an assistant coach who became a mentor, gave me hope. They were there for me. They listened to me, advocated for me and never gave up on me, even when I failed.”

With their support, Dennis found academic success, earning his sociology degree in 2012.

Then, with his degree in hand, he did something he now cautions his students against — he went back home to Chicago.

Within six months he lost everything.

Fortunately, Dennis stayed connected to his Blugold mentors, who convinced him to come back to UW-Eau Claire to earn a master’s degree.

“I had $80 in pocket and nothing else,” Dennis says. “Coach gave me shelter, and I got into graduate school. Everybody believed in me and that made a difference.”

Had he stayed in Chicago, Dennis says, he likely would have ended up dead or in jail.

Instead, he pursued every opportunity UW-Eau Claire offered him in and out of the classroom, building skills, confidence and connections on campus and in the community.

He also met Derrick “Swanny” Swanigan, an assistant football coach, who taught him about college recruiting.

Together, they began visiting young people in Midwest inner cities, convincing them that UW-Eau Claire could help them build a better life.

He also became a mentor to young people in the Eau Claire community, supporting them as his mentors had supported him.

In 2015 Dennis earned his master’s degree, and began working full time for UW-Eau Claire to recruit and retain students of color.

“I made it through the struggle,” says Dennis, who hopes to begin a Ph.D. program in the fall. “Education changed my life.”

Within a year of earning his master’s degree, however, his world changed again when Swanny was shot and killed in Chicago.

“Losing him was the hardest thing in my life,” Dennis says.

A few weeks later, another friend died from gun violence, this time in the Twin Cities.

Finding strength in one of his favorite sayings, he is ”using his pain as propane.”

He is more determined than ever to offer young people from violence-filled neighborhoods a way out.

“I’m even more of an advocate for students we pull from the inner cities,” Dennis says. “I will do anything to support them. I never give up on them.”

Given his own experiences, Dennis knows the kinds of things that can trip up his students as they navigate college on a campus and in a city that is so different from the urban areas they left behind.

Resources intended to help students succeed — things many Blugolds take for granted — are not even on his students’ radar.

He knows it is not enough to tell his students about the library or Academic Skills Center.

Instead, he walks them from office to office, introducing them to people who can help them with everything from financial aid to tutoring.

He coaches them on how to dress, how to communicate with professors and how to best respond if stopped by the local police.

His hard work is paying off.

The students he advises are succeeding academically, with a majority of them carrying GPAs over 3.0.

With Dennis’ help, they are finding internships, and building personal and professional connections.

They are giving back to the community, volunteering in area schools and homeless shelters.

Most importantly, his students — including D’Karlos — are graduating and building futures they had never envisioned.

D’Karlos, who graduated in December, now is applying to graduate schools, hoping to use his experiences and education to empower other young people.

“Seeing D’Karlos walk across the stage was so rewarding,” Dennis says. “He didn’t give up and I didn’t give up on him. My motto is ‘change lives daily’ and that’s what we’re doing.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire is attracting more students from inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Indianapolis thanks to Dennis Beale, a grad who uses his own life experiences to help convince them college is a path to a better life.