Among the nearly 600 students who proudly celebrated their graduation from Rutgers School of Health Professions this year were Sini Rakielou and Maggie Murrin. Yet, given their backgrounds, neither might have been expected to make it through college.
Sini emigrated from West Africa, where her father shared the cultural belief that women didn’t need education. But she was committed to college, saying it would give her a better job and income, and improve her family’s life.
Maggie, who lost her parents while she was young and bounced through the foster care system, always saw a college degree in her future. But without financial and family support, she failed out twice.
The key to their academic success was the Educational Opportunity Fund, which provided both students with the academic, financial and social support they needed to achieve a college education. Sini earned a degree in Respiratory Care, and Maggie, a degree in Psychological Rehabilitation.
“If I needed help, I knew it was there,” said Maggie. “The program helped me get the supplies I needed, like software and a digital recorder. But the best part was that I had someone who was interested in how I was doing. I felt like part of a family.”
Begun in New Jersey in 1968, the program puts students from the state’s lowest income levels on a path to a college degree. In addition to tuition aid, the program provides supplemental money for books and fees to those who meet eligibility requirements, as well as offers personal and academic support, including tutoring and advising.
Bianca Thompson-Owens, assistant dean for enrollment services at Rutgers School of Health Professions, said the program aims to remove barriers that typically keep lower-income students from going to college. Many are the first in their families to seek degrees in higher education.
“These are students, who given their demographics, are not projected to succeed. We’re giving them the resources to ensure their success. We’re their safety valve,” she said.
Across Rutgers University, about 2,600 students annually benefit from the program. According an EOF Progress Report issued in May 2015 by the state Office of Higher Education, roughly 13,000 students were able to go to college in New Jersey in 2012, thanks to the EOF. Of those students, 36 percent were black, 34 percent were Hispanic, 14 percent were white, 8 percent were Asian and 2 percent were of mixed races.
The report also found that students in New Jersey’s EOF program have among the highest college graduation rates in the nation compared to other low-income students.
At Rutgers School of Health Professions, the assistance starts even before classes begin.
This summer, students were brought together for four workshop sessions, culminating in a first-ever overnight retreat where speakers advised them on everything from goal-setting to the importance of having a diverse healthcare workforce to how to manage personal finances.
At the retreat held in August at the Rutgers University Inn and Conference Center, the small group of students were asked to imagine success and what it would take to get them there.
For Sini, success was passing her upcoming licensing exam, but she worried about finding time to study. As the speaker coached the students to reach their goals by breaking them into manageable steps, Sini resolved to study away from her home each morning while her children are in school to minimize disruptions from other extended family members.
Sini and her classmate, Ahou Melanie Yao, credited tutors provided to them through EOF for helping them during times they struggled. “EOF helped to push me forward,” said Melanie. “I never felt I was alone.”
“EOF students are some of the strongest students I’ve ever met because they’ve gone through challenges. Setting new educational goals can be scary and intimidating,” Brett Pulliam, assistant director of the program at Rutgers School of Health Professions, said at the retreat. “But they’ve overcome obstacles before and they can do it again.”
For more information on the program, including eligibility requirements, please visit the web page.
Below, Student Melissa Calderon bonds with others at the EOF retreat