Dakota Riehl

Student Info

Graduation Year:
Leslie, Michigan

What made you decide to attend the RCAH?
I had always wanted to attend a Big 10 University. Both of my parents had attended large universities and I had grown up exploring MSU and OSU’s campuses with them; quickly falling in love with the hustle and bustle. When it was time to apply, I recognized that although I wanted the Big 10 experience, I might not be prepared for 250-500+ classroom sizes. When I came to campus for a visit, I fell in love with RCAH’s small classroom sizes, their focus on community building amongst students and faculty, and their creative approach to learning. I also truly appreciated the integration of the arts into both the classes and the college itself. For a student with diverse academic interests, RCAH seemed like the logical choice.

Do you have any favorite memories?
I have too many. They are mostly rooted in my experiences as a Resident Assistant and my time with Roial Players.

What were your academic interests in RCAH?
Many of my classes within RCAH focused on community engagement, the influence of power through established institutions, and the power of place. I saw a logical connection between these RCAH themes and my second major, Religious Studies. Between my classes and the campus groups I was involved with, I became specifically interested in the philosophies of community action amongst faith-communities.

What were your favorite aspects of the RCAH experience?
I was lucky enough to be a Resident Assistant my sophomore and junior years of college. I lived for two years on the second, middle floor of Snyder with about 50 other young women. I was able to live with other RCAH students, engage in so many RCAH events, and collaborate with other RAs on all kinds of projects. Not only was it absolutely wonderful to get to know so many young women, it was incredible living so close to my classrooms, professors, and friends. RCAH was my literal home and I was able to truly live my learning.

Did you ever take part in Study Abroad/Study Away at MSU? If so, which programs?
The summer after my sophomore year, I joined Vincent Delgado, Scot Yoder, and fifteen other RCAH students in Costa Rica! We spent the first month of the in Santa Ana at Conversa, a Spanish language school. For someone who had taken only a few semesters of Spanish in high school, this was an uncomfortable yet amazing time for me. After this first month focusing on Spanish, we headed out to different rural communities throughout the country. I was sent to Santa Rosa, a tiny village nestled on the east coast of the country, to teach English to community members and work at the Eco-Finca (Eco-Farm) near Santa Rosa. I was there during an interesting time since the women in the community and Don Julio, the manager of Eco-Finca, were starting their own Co-Op farm. Other than working on the farm and teaching English, I spent most of my days laughing and working with my host mother – whose compassion, patience, and generosity seemed limitless! The experience was absolutely incredible and I learned so much about the power of community while I was there.

What have you done since graduating and where are you now?
After I graduated, I quickly started a master’s program at Grand Valley State University in Public Administration – Nonprofit Management and Leadership. While attending school full time, I joined AmeriCorps Vista and worked with Bethany Christian Services in their Youth Development department (later called the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation). At the Center, I primarily worked on starting a new social enterprise cafe. The Rising Grinds Cafe focuses on empowering in local youth - specifically, youth aging out of the Foster Care system as well as those experiencing homelessness - through meaningful workforce development opportunities and business education. My role included in-depth resource cultivation to make sure the cafe was not only youth-focused but also sustainable, ethical, and community-driven. After serving two terms as an AmeriCorps Vista for the Center, I started a new role as a Real Estate Development Associate for Inner City Christian Federation. So many of the youth I worked with at the Center faced a lack of affordable housing; largely the result of rampant gentrification in Grand Rapids. ICCF works to provide affordable housing and homeownership opportunities to those most financially vulnerable in our community. My role specifically focuses on the “brick and mortar” side of their mission. I play a part in engaging neighbors, selecting properties, applying for public funding, and developing a wide range of affordable housing opportunities. From single family homes to multi-story apartment complexes, my team and I work to preserve housing affordability in a city facing a very real housing crisis.

Which RCAH experiences influenced the work you do today?
My classes that focused on civic engagement were so influential to what I am doing today. I was not only able to engage in a meaningful way with my community, I was taught effective communicating skills and community action models. These are tools and skills I am always using.

Did you know while you were in college that you wanted to do the type of work you’re doing now?
Not at all! I honestly didn’t even consider affordable housing to be a topic I was specifically interested until I saw how it was impacting the community I was living in. Until that point, I hadn’t even looked into housing as a field I wanted to be in.

How did RCAH prepare you for what you're doing now?
One of the main roles of my current position is engaging with the community on potential developments and just to learn more about the housing needs in their community. So much of my education through RCAH focused on the power of community, meaningful ways of engagement, and the power of place. RCAH instilled in me a capacity to not only think creatively but to seek solutions with others. Many of the classes also prepared me to approach community issues critically by using a unique lens that considers the intricacies of history, power, and oppression.

What do you enjoy most about your current job?
I can honestly say that I love everything about my job. Not only does my job challenge me and expose me to new viewpoints every single day, I get to creatively and collaboratively work to remediate issues in my community. From the way our team manages projects to the architecture of buildings, I feel like I am making a literal impact on the landscape of my city.

What are some of the challenges?
Funding for housing is incredibly competitive. We are constantly investing time, money, and energy on developments that will never end up happening. It is challenging to become so involved with an idea only for it to fizzle out. On the same note, it is also challenging to communicate the necessity of affordable housing to community members and political leaders who are not always impacted by gentrification (and often times benefit from it).  This, luckily, is not a burden I nor my organization bear alone. Many organizations and community groups are working to educate community members, decision-makers, and political figures in order to prevent funding cuts and laws that would prohibit effective change.

What kind of hobbies do you have outside of work?
I enjoy hanging out with my husband at home, mostly snuggling our cat. We love exploring Grand Rapids and all the food options available to us! I am starting to get more involved with community organizations like our neighborhood association and attending city commission meetings. I absolutely love that I live in a walkable community with active, engaged, and diverse neighbors.

If you could plan an event for alumni in your area, what would you do?
That is honestly a great idea – I know there are a lot of RCAH Alumni in Grand Rapids. I would probably plan a movie night at the Wealthy Theatre with drinks before or afterward! It is an adorable old movie theater that shows cult classics regularly. It is a great location and would be so much fun. I think after that initial event, we could get together to do different community projects or learn about each other’s organizations.

What words of wisdom do you have for current RCAH students?
Invest in relationships between your classmates, professors, advisors, etc. If you truly enjoy a professor’s course, take more with them (instead of just taking another class for credit/convenient time sake). Take advantage of their office hours even if it is just to further explore a topic with them. Is there an older student at RCAH who has similar interests as you? Ask them about their experiences over coffee. These relationships are not only a good way to explore opportunities, they will be the support you need after your time at RCAH and MSU is done.