Assistant Provost Daniel Jean Knows What it Takes to Make First-Gen Students’ Dreams Come True

When Daniel “Danny” Jean was suspended for fighting during high school, his mother picked him up and noted, pointedly, that she never had to visit school for his four older siblings. The shame Jean felt at disappointing his mom became the impetus of his transformation from troubled teen with a 1.9 GPA to college student who would one day earn a doctorate.

“That was one of those signature moments that got me back on track,” recalls Jean.

Jean knows the power of keeping students on track. He was the executive director of the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program at Montclair State before becoming assistant provost for Special Programs, EOF and Academic Success in July 2020. In the newly created role, Jean oversees the Future College Graduate Academy, which provides a unified enrollment and graduation strategy for highly motivated, low-income, first-generation cohorts. A signature program, it is a grant-funded partnership with the Newark Board of Education to enroll 300 of the city’s high school juniors and seniors in Montclair State courses to improve college preparedness and empower the whole family to foster a college-going culture.

“This is creating a direct pathway for 300 Newark scholars to become Red Hawks,” says Jean, noting the program includes acceptance to the University.

Jean relates well to the vulnerable students he serves. His parents emigrated from Haiti with no formal education. His father was a preacher who died when Jean was 13, and his mom took cleaning jobs to support the family. Living in Newark, the Jeans moved 12 times and at one point were homeless. After losing his dad, Jean’s grades plummeted.

A Ramapo College recruiter told Jean he’d never get into college. Jean was offended and applied anyway. Two weeks later he was accepted as an EOF Scholar, and Jean realized the recruiter, Thelman Newman, was practicing a tough-love tactic.

Jean recalls feeling imposter syndrome at college, where he was sometimes the only Black man in the classroom. “I went from one of the largest urban centers to passing horse farms on the way to college. It was a culture shock,” says Jean, whose involvement with EOF helped him adjust. “When you’re first generation, you’re first generation everything.”

Jean earned his master’s in Counseling in 2000 from Montclair State, and a doctorate in Higher Education Administration in 2010 from Seton Hall University. Jean found the doctoral experience could be challenging in nonacademic ways, so he created a network to support aspiring doctoral candidates. The Facebook group, called PhinisheD/FinishEdD, has more than 22,000 members, a majority of whom are Black and brown. “I know how important it is to feel valued, connected and seen,” says Jean. “It’s ballooned into something I never could have imagined.”

Jean is also an author, consultant and motivational speaker who receives graduation photos from students he’s never met, with notes about how he inspired them.

But the EOF program holds a special place in his heart. Jean explains the program’s motto is “EOF for Life” to encourage former students to give back to the network with their time, talents and resources. EOF’s goal is that children of its participants will not be eligible for EOF, as proof of their parents’ success. Jean and his wife, also an EOF alum, have two sons, 11 and 13, who will not be EOF-eligible.

And his mom, Marie, now 81, can see how far her son has come since that high school suspension years ago. “I believe I’ve done everything I can to make her proud,” Jean says, “and will continue to do so.”

Sharon Waters