Seeing the Potential in ‘At-Risk’ Students

Irving Fien was a classic Florida success story. The son of Russian immigrants, he left his native Philadelphia for the rough-and-tumble economy of the Sunshine State and spent decades building a small food distribution company into a multi-million-dollar enterprise.

So why was he so interested in helping at-risk kids stay in school – interested enough to create a UF professorship dedicated to studying the challenges of at-risk students?

Irving Fien, center, believed he owed a debt to the mentors who convinced him, early in life, to pursue his education. In 1998, he gave UF $600,000 to create the Irving and Rose Fien Professorship in Education, a position dedicated to studying the challenges of at-risk students.

The answer is simple. Fien was once an at-risk student himself. As a high school student in the lean years of the Great Depression, he felt considerable pressure to leave school and work full time.

He didn’t drop out, though. Too many people in his life believed in the value of education. One was his mother, who had enrolled in school to learn to read and write in English. Another was Philadelphia minister and Temple University founder Russell Conwell, who would pay neighborhood kids a nickel every time they listened to one of his lectures.

Fien graduated from high school and went on to study accounting at Temple while working full time. In the early 1940s, he and his new bride Rose came to Florida and began Fien Distributing, a business that provided specialty foods to Miami’s burgeoning restaurant industry. Over the next half-century, they built the business into a major player in food service, with $50 million annual sales, and acquired well-known brands such as Wise Potato Chips.

Fien never regretted staying in school. In fact, he believed his education was the key to his success. That’s why in 1998 he established the Irving and Rose Fien Professorship in Education. With matching funds from the state and additional gifts from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the professorship is now backed by $1.17 million in funds.

Irving Fien made his gift in honor of Rose, who had died the year before. Yet he also saw it as repayment of a debt.

“(It’s) my way of trying to give something back and to honor those who influenced my life educationally,” Fien said in a 1998 interview.

Irving Fien died in 2004, but his gift to UF will ensure that future generations of at-risk students will have an advocate.