All posts by Joseph Cooper

From Fudge to Financial Aid: Customer Service is Key

In the northernmost city in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the most well-known and popular product for tourists is fudge. From plain chocolate fudge to more unique flavors, such as cookies and cream, Mackinaw City has tons of options that appeal to and draw in tourists all year round. But why fudge?
The Straits of Mackinac were originally a trading hub for resources such as fish and fur, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this area was reinventing itself into a popular tourist destination. Candy makers took advantage of this and before long fudge was the sought after product in the area.

Fast forward more than a hundred years to the fall of 2002 when a young college student began working his first summer at Marshall’s Fudge in Mackinaw City. That college student was me, of course, and I had no idea what this “summer job” would do for my personal and professional development.

First, I learned the history. I was working at Marshall’s Fudge, Mackinaw City’s oldest fudge shop. It originated on Mackinac Island and at one time had as many as six stores in the area. Marshall’s, a family business, was created by Jim Marshall in 1923. The business grew and Jim, his wife (Oradelle), and his son (Dean) continued growing their operations. As of the early 2000s, Marshall’s operates one main store in Mackinaw City and also ships fudge and candies worldwide for mail and Internet orders. Dean, who had taken over the business from his father, Jim, passed on the business to his daughter and son-in-law who still own and operate it today. Their teenage daughter also works in the store, just as Dean did for his father when he was that age.

From 2002 – 2006, I worked every summer from May – August in Marshall’s Fudge and learned from Dean while he was passing on the business to his kids. I sold fudge and all sorts of sweet treats, I scooped (and ate) more ice cream than one could ever imagine, I learned to make fancy coffee drinks, and I also got to help make certain things, such as caramel corn, almond bark, and caramel apples. (The secret fudge recipe and process was reserved for only the candy makers, who were either part of the Marshall family, or another individual who had been working there for more than 25 years at the time.) But the most impactful thing I did was customer service. I talked to customers. I listened to customers. We talked about the Mackinac Bridge, the weather, their kids, their upbringing, and everything in between. Best of all, this was encouraged. Dean (Mr. Marshall) always wanted us to build relationships with customers, as he was confident this would give them an experience as good as the fudge itself and encourage them to be lifelong customers. He was absolutely right.

Some of the incredibly valuable lessons that I learned while at this summer job are:

Treat others on your team like family.
This was more than just a job – it was a family for me in the summers I was there. As an 18 year old my first summer there, I was invited to multiple “family” dinners and outings, and in general I was treated like family. I felt appreciated and it was clearly conveyed that I was a valuable member of the team. I even celebrated my 21st birthday with the Marshall family. (I won’t go into those details!)

Believe in the product.
“Taste the difference.” Dean and his wife, Jeannie, would say this all the time. They wanted customers to know they were confident that their product was the best and that they weren’t afraid to say so. Specifically, over the years, they had to compete with dozens of other competing stores, even though the other stores had different recipes and often a more appealing price tag. Dean would often say to us, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” I know he didn’t create this saying, but it resonated with me and stuck with me all these years. He knew what we were selling might be more expensive, but he could justify it. He believed in it and stood by his product.

Customer service is key.
Like I mentioned before, even if someone was just coming in the store to look around, we were expected to treat them like a close friend – and we did. In these cases, I don’t even think it was the product that was selling the customers. Instead, they made a connection. They remembered us. They remembered me, the guy that told them where my favorite restaurant in town was. Or they remembered that my co-worker was from Poland and they loved talking to her about her time working in Mackinaw City for the summer. In these moments, it was simply friendly human interaction and it wasn’t about the fudge. But ultimately, Dean was right. It did lock them in as a customer.

It’s now 2018, and even after my last full summer in 2006 when I finished college, I have continued to go back every summer for about a week and “work” for fun. Most people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I take vacation to go work about 40 hours for a week, but to me, it’s a passion. I recharge my customer service skills and am reminded how important it is for me to demonstrate these same customer service principles in my role with financial aid at Michigan Technological University.

Just as Dean and his family did for me, I view my team as a family. I’m very privileged to work with such a fine group of people in my office at Michigan Tech, and I strive to make them feel as great as they are. I fully believe that if you take care of your team, they will take care of business. In addition, I am fully confident in our product and I’m not afraid to be realistic about it. Yes, I tell folks that a Michigan Tech education is expensive and that it’s a significant investment. But I also can back that up with the return on investment, including the average starting salaries, an extremely low loan default rate, etc. I know our students are getting what they pay for. Finally, customer service in financial aid is the foundation of what we do. When dealing with financial aid and the cost of an education, this can cause much anxiety and emotion for many families. We may not always have the desired solutions or answers for students and their families, but what we can do and strive to do is listen, talk, and demonstrate compassion and empathy. It is through this confidence in our education and our positive customer service that we feel we can develop affinity for Michigan Tech and help make these students lifelong members of the Husky family.

About two years ago when I was doing my summer week in the fudge shop, I saw three men curiously walk into our store. One of them was wearing a Michigan Tech baseball cap, so I instantly knew I had to engage. I quickly walked over on my side of the counter, said “Go Huskies!,” and proceeded to explain to them what I do at Michigan Tech and why I’m here in Mackinaw City in this fudge shop. Their faces quickly turned to smiles when they realized another Husky was here with them. It turned out they were from India, had just graduated from Michigan Tech, and were taking a little trip before they began their careers. We talked for about 5-10 minutes before they left. To be honest, I have no idea if they bought anything from our store or not. And to be honest, none of us cared. Those recent alumni and I had a good time chatting, and I’d be willing to bet that if/when they return to Mackinaw City, they will return to Marshall’s Fudge because they made a connection there and felt welcome. This feeling, this relationship, and the personal connection is what made Marshall’s Fudge special even more than the superior recipe.

I’ve worked at Michigan Tech for nine years now and I know the same holds true here. We have a superior education, but we also have amazing faculty and staff who believe in what we do and demonstrate a passion for helping students. I love making connections with students, families, and alumni and doing whatever I can to help.

If you happen to stop in Mackinaw City in early July, stop in Marshall’s Fudge and look for me. I’ll be wearing a funny looking paper hat and I’d love to chat with you and share Michigan Tech stories. Oh yeah, I almost forgot… We sell fudge too.

Because even I needed a reminder when writing this blog, more information about the history of the Straits of Mackinac and Marshall’s Fudge can be found at

Making the Case for Student Loan Repayment Benefits

With continued declining support from the states, it’s unlikely anyone would be surprised by the rising costs of higher education.  Colleges can and do point to declining state support, rising operational costs, etc., and while that may make sense with students and families, it doesn’t solve their ultimate concern of overwhelming student debt and how it will impact them after graduation.

In a 2017 survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), 98% of families indicated that they are looking for ways to lower the cost of college.  This shouldn’t be surprising, but the more impactful result of this survey was that 69% of students ruled out a particular college due to costs.  This number rose gradually from 58% when the survey was first distributed in 2008.  At the same time, federal aid applications (via the FAFSA) have risen this year to 86% on average.  The bottom line is that college is costing more and students and their families are struggling to find methods to pay.

According to, on average the class of 2016 graduates had $37,172 in student loan debt.  This was an increase of 6% from 2015.  Furthermore, the average monthly student loan payment that borrowers ages 20 to 30 years old must make are $351.  (Again, that’s just the average, so while some are lower, some are also significantly higher too.)

Colleges have to balance their budgets and can only make so many cuts.  Federal aid continues to be a controversial subject, and no drastic increases in aid or loan forgiveness are on the horizon.  Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is limited in who qualifies and the entire program is in question currently.  The statistics shared above make the case for new approaches and creative solutions, but not where you might expect them.  In a 2017 survey conducted by IonTuition, data shows that student borrowers are increasingly supporting the concept of employers offering student loan repayment assistance programs and benefits.  The survey found that 81% of more than 1,000 borrowers surveyed said they would like to work for an employer that offers student loan repayment plans.  While 87% of respondents noted that they are currently employed, the majority indicated that paying off their student loan balances remains a persistent problem.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for employers to try some new and innovative approaches to recruit graduates.  Of the respondents, 51% indicated that they would prefer a student loan repayment benefit over health care benefits.  Similarly, 49% said they would prefer the same over a 401(k) package.  According to NASFAA, these findings demonstrate that the concerns of young employees are vastly different from past generations, with a focus on paying down debt as opposed to planning for retirement or saving for other milestones.

IonTuition’s findings support the concept that companies can stay current by adding benefits that are more desirable to their workforce.  Offering student loan benefits to employees could be a creative way to recruit and retain talented college graduates.  Might this just be trading one financial problem for another?  Potentially, but that doesn’t change the data and the fact that young college graduates are looking for something new and different from their employers’ benefits packages

Mentors – Look Up, Look Down, Look Left, Look Right

October is Careers in Student Affairs month, a time in which we make efforts to explain our field of work and why we do it to those students who we feel may be interested or have potential.  One of the pieces we constantly emphasize is the value of mentors.  While there are many explanations of the term “mentor,” a quick Google search returns the result of “an experienced and trusted adviser.”

I realized that sometimes, when we say to “find a mentor,” students treated this like another task or homework assignment.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite from some sort of elaborate scavenger hunt.  It’s likely that all of us have mentors in our lives already, but perhaps we just haven’t assigned them that label and taken full advantage of them.

While I have served as a mentor for many of our students, I find myself reflecting on my own journey with mentors and how they have helped shape me into the professional and leader that I am today.


Since coming to Michigan Tech in 2009, I have had four different supervisors.  (Yes, that’s four supervisors in just over 7 years.)  Each of these supervisors has been very different and they have each given me things that I’ve absorbed along my professional journey.  During my time working for each, I’ve been asked difficult questions, been challenged more than I’ve probably liked, been rewarded for my accomplishments, and have been given the tools, trust, and encouragement needed to get the job done.  Most importantly, they’ve given me opportunities.  Opportunities to succeed, opportunities to fail, and opportunities to advance.  So while some people cringe at the notion of four supervisors in such a short amount of time, I take pride in this.  These folks, my mentors, saw potential, and through the challenges and scaffolding they provided, I was able to find other new and excited ways to move up in my professional journey while also still serving Michigan Tech.


It is often said that Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with advisers who were better educated and more experienced than him in certain matters.  This thought may make some of us uncomfortable if you consider the traditional supervisor/employee roles, but it really shouldn’t.  While I can’t say it was intentional at the time, I’ve found myself surrounded at times with some extremely challenging folks in some of my past roles.  At times, it was frustrating.  In fact, I’d walk away from meetings wondering why certain individuals were being so difficult.  Why weren’t they thinking like me?!  But then, I had a chance for them to evaluate my performance and I also had some of my other supervisors/mentors challenge me.  “Try another angle,” they said.  And I did.  How productive it was to not fight the current anymore, and instead, to have meaningful and healthy dialogue and disagreements.  I was often wrong.  And I’m comfortable with that.  Some of my peers and those who I have supervised have become some of my most meaningful mentors.  I trust them, and in turn, they trust me.  They taught me to be a better supervisor, and they helped form such a powerful and motivated team that had a true focus on the students. 


Students…  18, 19, 20, 21 year olds.  How can they be mentors?  I’m sure they don’t see themselves as such, but I can say after working in this field for more than 10 years that they have been some of my most impactful mentors.  Each meeting with a student is something entirely different, and their words and experiences can often leave you speechless.  I often reflect on students I’ve worked with and advised, and I hope that I’ve served them as best as I possibly could have.  Many students have come to trust me, and I take pride in having earned that.  But why not flip this around?  For those students who have chosen to trust me, I’ve found much value in giving them my trust.  Even more importantly, I have found value in asking for their feedback and advice.  By doing this, not only are we giving students the voice they should have anyways, but we’re also receiving the best possible information and opinion, from the source.  This is the meaning of an adviser.  This is the meaning of a mentor.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

-Dr. Brene Brown

Learning happens at every moment, and everyone has something to offer.  Dr. Brene Brown is credited with the quote, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”  In the end, never underestimate the ability to listen and learn from everyone around us, no matter who they are.  By being vulnerable and truly listening and trusting, you may just find not only some great advice, but also a significant mentor.

An Investment Worth Making

Attending college anywhere is a big decision and a big investment for students and their families. With cost of attendance being over $13,000 for Michigan residents and over $29,000 for non-Michigan residents, attending college at Michigan Technological University is a very significant decision and investment.

Like any investment, it would not be recommended that you just throw your money in a random fund and hope for the best. College can be treated the same way, in that you should be able to research the school and its outcomes to better estimate your return on investment. According to, the average starting salary for those graduating from Michigan Tech is $62,800, the seventh highest in the nation among public universities. The Princeton Review also listed Michigan Tech in its 2016 book, “Colleges That Pay You Back.” Michigan Tech, which was among 200 schools listed in the book, was evaluated based on academics, cost, financial aid, graduation rates, student debt, alumni salaries, and job satisfaction. Continue reading