When Fatimata Diabate ’20 delivered an inspirational speech on resilience during Commencement ceremonies, she represented the hopes and dreams of hundreds of Montclair State students, many of whom are first-generation scholars like Diabate.
“My academic preparation was poor,” she said in a voice full of emotion. “I had a lot of catching up to do, but I had a mission to succeed in life. Something powerful inside of me that always kept me moving forward.”
That determination is at the heart of the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), the program that guided Diabate to earn a bachelor’s degree in Public Health. Captured on video, her remarks have been viewed tens of thousands of times on social media and were used to close the EOF Summer Academy on August 6.
“It’s a powerful speech,” says EOF Associate Director Rahjaun Gordon.“Not only does it express all that Fatimata has been able to accomplish, but it shows our new scholars what they can achieve in their time here.”
EOF provides college access and opportunity to highly motivated students, “most from low-income communities, who want more, who are motivated or first-gen, and who with the proper support and guidance can ultimately reach their personal and professional goals,” says Assistant Provost for Special Programs Daniel Jean.
The Summer Academy is the “heart and soul” of the program, a five-week institute providing new EOF scholars with academic and social transitional support. This summer, mandatory safety measures due to the coronavirus prevented an on-campus experience. Still, 148 scholars attended, higher than the projected enrollment, for online classes in writing, mentoring, tutoring and advising.
“What the staff, peer leaders and teachers were able to do was take a storm and really make it a rainbow,” says Genesis Mota, a Social Justice major from Bayonne, New Jersey.
“I learned so much through the virtual online academy. In person or not, we found ways to communicate and teach each other,” Mota says. “I improved my writing skills and learned what spots in my house have more Wi-Fi, how to change my background when I call, how to achieve the impossible, and also that I’m not alone.”
“This is a difficult time,” says EOF Counselor Angela White, “but we want students to be proactive and look back at this time and reflect: ‘This is what I did to promote myself and educate myself during a pandemic.’”
EOF Counselor Tatia Haywood adds, “I tell our scholars, this is your experience. College is going to be what you put into it.”
On July 30, White and Haywood organized the 8th Annual Statewide EOF Empowerment Conference. Held virtually with other colleges and about 400 students, the event included keynotes on the power of voting, advancing college affordability and accessibility, grit and resilience. In a real-time discussion, the scholars were asked to share in a single word what EOF means to them. “Family, opportunity, support, future, growth,” they typed onto their screens.
The online interaction was a preview of the fall semester. “We’ve been transparent, telling students it may not look at what you’ve seen on TV, but a virtual college experience can still be impactful,” Haywood says.
The challenges of the coronavirus crisis, including its health and economic impact on the EOF community, has also brought into focus the barriers and distractions some scholars face as they acclimate to college.
“We’re all in this together,” White says. “Students come to us for support, knowing we’ll be there even after hours and open to what they have to say. It’s the benefit of having EOF as a family.”
Diabate, in an interview a few days after Commencement, recalled her experience as a new EOF scholar. “My first year I was scared, but EOF became my home. It was made up of people I was able to relate to. Whether you were Haitian or African or Hispanic, we all had similar backgrounds.”
But for her grit, finding a home at Montclair State nearly didn’t happen. Diabate was initially declined admission.
Born in the United States, Diabate lived as a child with family in Ivory Coast as her parents juggled multiple jobs, returning when she was 8. “Imagine at that age, entering school not knowing your times tables or how to spell. You’re always trying to catch up. I’ve always felt that way.”
She called Admissions asking, “What can I do to better myself? How can I become a stronger candidate?”
In her Commencement address, Diabate recalled, “The woman I spoke to said, ‘No student has ever called to ask how can they better their future? Let me call the Educational Opportunity Fund program. Let me see what I can do for you.’ She called me back and said they accepted me. Until this day, I do not know who that woman was, but she was the first of many miracles in my life.”
One of her writing teachers, Tavya Jackson, an instructional specialist, says it was gratifying to see Diabate give the commencement speech. “She mentioned some of the challenges she faced when she first came to Montclair, and I was amazed to hear about what she had gone through, because she was always such a positive, friendly, open presence in our writing class. She struggled, at times, with her writing, but she displayed such effort and determination, such a willingness to try until she improved and succeeded.”
In the interview, Diabate paused to reflect on her story. “And I made it,” she says. “I made it.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren
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