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Embracing Opportunity Programs

As the summer begins, I want to share my story of college access as it may resonate for many of you.  In 1989, when I was going through the college application process, I learned about New York State’s Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP).  At that time, I knew that this was a way into one of my dream schools and that it would assist me in paying for that institution.  Little did I know, at that time, that HEOP was not only going to aid my admission into Columbia College, it was going to plug me into an amazing community of scholars and educators who shaped my undergraduate experience.  This program had a profound impact on who I am today.

In order to understand why my experiences from 30 years ago still resonate for me, I think it is important to understand the genesis of opportunity programs in New York.  The first of four sister programs was established in 1964 when Percy Ellis Sutton (a child of a father born into bondage, a Tuskegee Airmen, and civil rights lawyer) helped to pass legislation for the establishment of College Discovery in City University of New York (CUNY) two-year colleges.  The following year, CUNY four-year colleges developed the Search for Elevation, Education and Knowledge (SEEK) at their institutions.  Mr. Sutton’s work inspired Arthur O. Eve to push forth legislation that led to the development of SUNY’s Education Opportunity Program (EOP) in 1967 and then the Higher Education Opportunity Program at NY State’s private colleges in 1969.  These programs are a testament to the vision that these leaders had and ensure that all members of NY State’s populations have access to higher education in spite of their humble origins.

Over the course of the last 60 years, these programs helped thousands of young people go on to become productive adults.  Many of these individuals did not think that they could afford higher education and due to the generous support of funding (by way of tax dollars and institutional aid), they were able to make their dreams a reality.  As great as this is in ensuring access to higher education, the real beauty of opportunity programs is that they ensure that students have the resources they need to graduate from college.  After I graduated from Columbia College, I went on to graduate school and eventually landed my first adult job working as an academic recruiter and advisor for the HEOP at Columbia.  That program’s graduation rate was higher than Columbia’s average for non-opportunity students, and based on my experiences with colleagues at other schools this tended to be the norm at most institutions across the state.  A big reason behind this success is tied into the support these programs provide students.  Every student must attend some form of an academic boot camp the summer before starting college.  Once they begin their courses in the fall, they work closely with an opportunity program academic advisor who has a smaller caseload and is focused on working with opportunity students.  Students still have access to faculty advisors, but will always have at least one extra pair of eyes on them.  I remember how much my advisor assisted me in navigating the culture at my college.  As a first generation student, I did not understand “basic” concepts such as office hours or using the syllabus to plan out my semester.   HEOP cleared this up for me.  When I became an employee of HEOP, I made sure to pass along these tidbits and assisted my students in understanding the value of social capital.  We plugged them into a formalized alumni network of graduates and led them on legislative events in Albany to advocate for funding with other students throughout NY State.  Being a member of an opportunity program assists young people to see that they are part of a larger movement in this country to ensure access to education for all. 

Today, I still consider myself part of the opportunity programs family and am elated when I can assist a student to begin the journey I went through over 30 years ago.  It is a road paved with hope and one that will gloriously lead to a better life for many who travel on it.  It is also a journey filled with growth, connections and experiences that will shape those who are able to take it.  It is why I have chosen to become an educator and consider myself blessed to be a part of the legacy that Mr. Sutton and Mr. Eve created for so many of us in NY State.  

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