Past woes blossom into future growth

Walter Lanier guides students at MATC


Photo by Jessica Paetzke

Walter Lanier

Walter Lanier, director of the Multicultural Student Services department at MATC, recalled when he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1985, “I floundered a lot, I was underachieving and had no vision for my future.” It got to the point that Lanier had to leave the school. “I dropped out after my first semester and spent the following two years working odd jobs,” he said.

Lanier had bigger plans for himself than working odd jobs, so he decided to turn things around. “When I was working those jobs I wasn’t happy, I was aimless. I remember working at Hernia Movers on the East Side when I realized I could be doing so much more – I knew college was the way to do that so I went back to UWM, got focused and things just took off,” said Lanier.

Lanier graduated from UWM in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He then enrolled in the University of Michigan, where he earned his law degree in 1995. Lanier joked, “It took me seven years to get my bachelor’s and only three years to get my law degree – now that’s focus!”

Lanier has worked at MATC since 2008, holding various positions. Currently, in addition to his role in the Multicultural department, he is the head of the Men of Color initiative (MoC) at MATC. He also is the head pastor at Progressive Baptist Church in Milwaukee and father of three children.

In January 2015 MATC launched the MoC initiative, which is designed to increase college course completion rates, retention rates and graduation rates, as well as help MATC students to overcome barriers and obstacles that may arise as they pursue success in higher education.

Lanier recognizes how lucky he was to turn things around for himself. “I’m not only lucky but I am blessed – I had great family support to fall back on.” Lanier also noted “not everyone makes it back from the position I was in.” 

Knowing that people don’t always return to school after dropping out is part of the reason he helped launch the MoC initiative.

“Other people don’t have the same type of support I had, so building that support inside MATC is very important to me,” he explained.

The unique opportunities Lanier saw at MATC also played a role in his desire to lead the MoC.  “We are the only majority-minority college in Wisconsin,” Lanier said.  “We live in an area with high segregation, poverty and incarceration rate, so as an educational institution I think we have a great opportunity to make an impact in the community.”

Lanier, two part-time advisors and regional campus representatives guide the MoC initiative. “There are several components to the initiative, but the two biggest pieces would be the academic strategy and cohort strategy,” he said.

The academic strategy focuses on four main programs: Automotive Maintenance Tech, Human Service, Culinary and Business Management.

“We chose these programs and asked how can we strengthen the results within these specific programs?” Lanier said. “We’ve worked with these programs to build a relationship with faculty and administration to make sure the men of color in these programs are aware we’re here as a resource, and its borne fruit. We have seen substantial improvement over the past two years.”

The cohort strategy takes a more direct approach to students. “The cohort strategy acts as more of an unofficial open door mentoring program,” said Lanier. “Students who elect to participate in our events and functions, we sort of keep tabs on them.”  He described it as light case management and unofficial mentoring.

“I certainly would have liked to have a program like MoC when I was going through school,” said Lanier. He believes it would have increased his likelihood of success. 

In his job, Lanier helps students avoid making the mistakes he made. “Since I’ve been there before I can tell when students feel like their options are narrowing and are on the verge of quitting. I’ve worked with students that were in the same situation I was, and through the MoC, helped them see a path to success. Perhaps [my background] is why I do particularly well with students who are struggling or not sure about what they want to do,” Lanier contemplated. “If you can get some focus, some direction, some space to think about your future, you realize there’s opportunities for you to succeed.”

In the near future Lanier hopes to grow the capacity so the MoC initiative serves the student body as a whole.  However, the big vision “would be to become a national model for closing academic equity gaps for men of color at urban community colleges,” he said.