With their overlapping stories of persistence in overcoming the barriers that might have kept them from college, 145 incoming freshmen in Montclair State’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program are now on a path with the confidence and skills to succeed in their first year as graduating scholars of the EOF Summer Academy.
It had been a rigorous five weeks. Days began early and stretched into the night, with a schedule that included classes, mentoring, tutoring and advising. Words like perseverance, opportunity, family and support pepper a Zoom conversation with about a dozen scholars and peer leaders, each responding with heart emojis and joking they were sending the virtual love to hold back the tears they knew would shed when the Summer Academy came to its end on August 5.
The closing ceremony, though, wasn’t a day for goodbyes. In fact, it was only the beginning. Each scholar received a graduation stole, a symbol that their college and EOF journey continues, and they were applauded and encouraged by Montclair State University Assistant Provost of Special Programs Daniel Jean and President Jonathan Koppell, both of whom agree that students are the reason for optimism about the future.
Retention and graduation rates are the key measures of the program’s success, and at Montclair State, three out of four scholars graduate within six years, among the highest in the state.
EOF has made college attainable over the past five decades for thousands of students facing academic and financial challenges. “It really tells you and shows you that you are worthy, that you are chosen, that you were accepted into the program for a reason,” says Favour Ojugo, an incoming freshman.
But this group of incoming scholars are entering college at an unprecedented time, says Jean. The coronavirus pandemic has altered the traditional education experience and missed opportunities may have left students less prepared to succeed as they enter college. The EOF Summer Academy focused on getting these students back on track.
“I was used to my high school routine (with virtual learning). Cameras off, laying in bed and not minding if I was late,” said Stephanie Hic, among the student speakers of the closing ceremony. “I thought the transition from high school to college wouldn’t be too bad. But as we all came to realize college isn’t that simple. My first day in class I knew all my bad habits had to go.”
For the first time, the academy ran two separate tracks, an in-person track and virtual, and an Academic Launch program in recognition of the challenges caused by the pandemic.
“These scholars were able to earn six credits and basically get that jump-start to their college experiences as it relates to the road to graduation here at Montclair State,” says Jean. The academic skills, resources and counseling contribute to keeping close to 90% of the first-year students in school.
“I don’t want to say my high school didn’t prepare me, but without this, I wouldn’t know what I was walking into and I would be struggling,” says Fatou Amar, who is considering a major in Business. “It has helped me with time management too, because I’m one of those people who waits until the last minute to do my work. But my peer leaders are mentoring me to do my work earlier, to work harder – instead of being average, to be great, to be confident.”
Actor Hill Harper, keynote for the 9th Statewide EOF Empowerment Conference on July 29, reminded more than 300 EOF first-year scholars from colleges and universities throughout the state that they are the “architects” of their own lives.
“Don’t rush – learn, grow, explore,” Harper said via Zoom. “This is the time to lean into that. Be bold, innovate, create, take risks and don’t allow fear to stop you from trying new things, meeting new people, having new opportunities.”
About 800 students are EOF scholars at Montclair State. The program is state funded and to be eligible, participants must have resided in New Jersey for at least 12 months, meet the New Jersey State Higher Education income criteria and exhibit through academic standing the potential for high achievement.
“Not only did EOF give me independence,” said Arianna Ritman, an incoming scholar during the closing ceremony, “but it also gave me an opportunity to start college early for free. How many freshmen around the world do you know will be starting their fall semester with six credits and a 4.0 GPA?”
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