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“Cult-like” Atmosphere Found in UAlbany Summer Program

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Quietly governed by strict rules and draconian punishment, the mandatory summer orientation for the coveted Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) stands out as a jarringly repressive feature of one of the University at Albany’s most acclaimed programs.    

Before being admitted to the university, academically and financially disadvantaged students applying through the EOP program must first graduate from a five-week orientation, structured by a system of strict rules, which if violated result in punishments referred to by EOP officials as “lockdown,” “bed rest,” and “isolation.”

Some of these rules and punishments intersect with national definitions of non-criminal hazing and raise questions about how much personal freedom disadvantaged students must relinquish in exchange for an opportunity to attend a public university. In the words of one EOP student who wished to remain anonymous the summer program was like, “dangling meat in front of a hungry dog.”

In addition, much of this code of conduct — which governs almost every aspect of student life down to the undergarments they must wear —is not made known to students until after they’ve left home, arrived on campus, and signed a contract with the university.

UAlbany officials defend the strict program as necessary to prepare incoming EOP students for a college environment and attribute much of their success to the program and its strict code of discipline.  

RULES

As students arrive in Albany, EOP director, Maritza Martinez, distributes a “participation contract” outlining basic rules for attendance and behavior.

But not until their first night on campus, after signing the contract, are students sat down for an intensive informational in which they learn the true demands of the summer program.   

All nine of the EOP students the Albany Student Press interviewed for this story said that during their first night, officials split the orientation group by gender to explain additional rules and punishments not covered in initial meetings.

The ASP obtained a copy of the document given to students at this first-night meeting through a Freedom of Information Law request. The document defines “lockdown” and a punishment called “room confinement,” and it spells out other core policies that the students must follow to remain in the program.   

The document instructs women to keep their shoulders covered at all times, as well as to make sure they wear a bra. For men, “wife beaters,” sagging pants, and du-rags are not allowed outside of dorm rooms.

The more than 500-word cellphone policy among other things, warns students that if a cellphone is taken out of a dorm room and the outline of it is seen in someone’s pocket or backpack, the device will be confiscated for the remainder of the five weeks.  

“Your college education is never worth less than your cellphone,” the document warns, indicating that students found in violation of program rules face the possibility of dismissal.  

The orientation’s most onerous policy bans EOP students from associating with anyone from outside of the program. Described in the “participation contract” as not “…socializing with non-EOP Summer Program students or staff,” this rule is one of few policies mentioned to students in the contract.

But at the first night’s meeting this policy is fully explained, and students are instructed not to speak or interact with anyone other than EOP members and staff for the duration of the five weeks.   

Having already signed a contract with the university, and presumably turned down other schools’ admissions offers, students have little choice but to comply with these newly introduced demands.

Most of the EOP students interviewed for this story praised the summer program despite the harsh treatment, but many agreed with the characterization of it as a “trade off.” They endured strict policies, they said, in exchange for a discounted education, free books, and tutoring — all features of the EOP.

“The first two weeks we were all pretty upset,” said Ariah Matias, a freshman EOP student from the Bronx. “Then when we started making friends and interacting, we were actually having fun because we realized that it was all a benefit.”

 

EOP Summer Program Code of Conduct by AlbanyStudentPress on Scribd

EOP BACKGROUND

Martinez and university officials tout UAlbany’s EOP as one of the most successful in the State University of New York system where 51 schools have similar programs. She said that UAlbany’s summer program has been cast as a model for other SUNY schools.

The program boasts graduation and retention rates higher than those of other EOPs throughout the state, but it is still unclear whether UAlbany’s out-of-the-ordinary summer practices are the cause of this success.

The ASP surveyed the other 34 SUNY schools with EOP summer programs to find out whether similar practices were in place. After numerous requests for comment, only four schools responded, each indicating they did not employ similar practices.

A representative from the EOP at SUNY Oswego, Deborah Kite, was among the four who responded to the ASP’s survey.

“We encourage our students to interact with other students on campus,” Kite said. “Our goal has always been to make sure EOP students are treated as any other student on campus.”

Media and public relations representatives from Binghamton and Stony Brook Universities, two of the largest EOP programs, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A student from Binghamton University’s EOP, Roncel Holder, told the ASP that his summer orientation did not have any of these features.

Binghamton’s EOP graduation rate as of 2012 was 78 percent, and their current retention-rate for freshmen to sophomore year is 98 percent — higher than UAlbany’s EOP, which maintains a 77 percent graduation rate and 92 percent first-year retention.

Although Martinez said that the EOP summer needs to be strict in order to be effective, Binghamton success without such measures seem to suggest otherwise.  

One EOP director who received the ASP’s numerous requests for comment, forwarded a copy of the ASPs questionnaire to Martinez, who then went to UAlbany’s Director of Media Relations, Karl Luntta.

In a meeting Luntta facilitated Friday, Martinez and her supervisor, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, William B. Hedberg, spoke with the ASP to offer comment.

The overwhelming consensus among Martinez, Hedberg, and Luntta was that the program’s efficacy spoke for itself.

Since its creation, the greater system of EOP within the SUNY system has produced more than 55,000 graduates, many of whom have gone on to great success. Of the notable EOP graduates in New York is Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner, who graduated in 2008 from Stony Brook University. Joyner did not respond to the ASP’s request for comment.

Hedberg, who has been with the university since 1978, explained that although he had never read the EOP’s summer policies in detail until that meeting, he knew that the program was strict.

The strict summer orientation created by former EOP Director, Carson Carr, increased the program’s graduation and retention rates, said Hedberg.

“It gives them [EOP students] an opportunity to be introduced to the campus, to build social cohesion together in a cohort group…” Hedberg said.

Both Hedberg and Martinez explained that although the summer program on its face is successful, no methods of evaluation exist to appraise the effects of the strict policies.

“To my knowledge we haven’t engaged outside consultants to come in to evaluate either the summer orientation program or other aspects of the EOP,” Hedberg said. “The results speak for themselves.”

However effective the program is, Luntta said the strong language of the policies is currently under review.

The review however, has been underway for a year-and-a-half with no apparent development, according to Martinez.

Hedberg said he was unaware of this review; at which point Martinez explained she had not revealed her internal audit of the policy’s language until that moment.

PUNISHMENT

After the first night’s meeting, students are required to have memorized the program rules.

“DO NOT GUESS and do not play the ‘I didn’t know’ card as you will be responsible for knowing them after tonight’s floor meeting has ended,” officials note in the first-night handout.

The handout clearly warns students who waver from the rules that strict punishment will be doled out, and students who are non-compliant will be immediately dismissed.

If the orientation group as a whole breaks a rule such as not cleaning common spaces or being too loud on the campus walkways, they are put onto “lockdown,” a punishment in which students are instructed to remain silent and allowed only to speak to teachers and program administrators.   

“This punishment [lockdown] also kept us from ordering food, doing laundry, and interacting with others,” said Matias. “That’s why often we were called the ‘isolation kids.’”

Ricky Gaitan, a junior at UAlbany who attended the EOP summer in 2014, explained that during his five weeks, his group was put on lockdown after receiving only two verbal warnings.

“No one could talk to anyone…you stayed in your room,” Gaitan said.

He explained that after his orientation group was warned about leaving garbage in common areas, the Resident Directors (RD) put them on lockdown for two days.

“And if he [RD] catches anyone talking, lockdown will continue for another day,” Gaitan said.

Another student, who requested to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation from EOP officials, also remembered being put on “lockdown” for 48 hours.  She explained that to satiate her need for human contact during those days, she forced herself to make undesired small talk with her EOP Student Assistant (SA).  

Matias said her orientation group was put on group-wide “lockdown” twice.  

Another punishment is known as “isolation,” and is given to students who commit individual conduct violation such as “showing shoulders,” or wearing clothing that reveals shoulders.  

Matias explained that “isolation” was identical to “lockdown” but only for the student who had violated policy. Students on “isolation” in addition to not being able to speak with anyone, are required to remain with the group during free time, but are forced to sit apart from their peers.  

Within the authoritative structure, Martinez, via her RD enforcers, could also impose other punishments for not completing class assignments. Gaitan explained that after not completing a homework assignment he was given a punishment known as “bed rest.”

While on “bed rest,” in addition to writing a 500-word essay, Gaitain was confined to his room during free time and was prohibited from speaking with his peers.

“Bed rest,” the third form of punishment, was explained by Matias as also being used to reprimand students who were caught sleeping during summer classes or lectures.

“While everyone was on free time and able to play outside, you [people on bed rest] had to go back into your room and sleep,” Matias said. “They would assume you had no energy to play since you were falling asleep.”

With only one exception, the EOP students who spoke with the ASP found the summer program to have been beneficial, citing how prepared and comfortable they were upon arriving in the fall.

“I never saw it as a punishment,” said Aniel Luna, a UAlbany junior from the Bronx. “I saw it more like they were trying to build us as a family.”

Luna explained that the summer orientation, including the “lockdown” policy, brought him closer to his peers and prepared him for his freshmen year.

Matias expanded on this sentiment by explaining that in the beginning of her orientation EOP officials told them: ‘“Once we [EOP students] went back home for two weeks, we would actually miss the school.’” She went on to explain that officials told her group by the end of the five-weeks they would be a “family.”

The “notion of ‘family,’” however, has been described by nationally recognized hazing expert, Hank Nuwer, as being commonly emphasized by members of hazing fraternities and sororities, as well as what he called “cult-like” groups.

HAZING

Often thought to only occur in Greek-letter organizations, a recent study conducted by the National Study for Student Hazing, found that hazing is a prevalent practice far beyond Greek groups.

UAlbany’s hazing policy — which closely resembles New York’s anti-hazing statute — prohibits criminal hazing, or any act that endangers the physical or mental wellbeing of a person, regardless of the individual’s willingness to participate in the given activity.

Of the 11,000 students surveyed, 12 percent reported being forced to associate with specific people and not others as the most common hazing practice.

The core policy of restricting EOP students’ communication to within their group explicitly requires that the summer cohort associate with some and not with others.

Stophazing.org, the website that facilitated the hazing study, is cited on UAlbany’s Office of Student Involvement website as a resource for information on the topic.

Nuwer, who is one of the nation’s most respected authorities on hazing and has authored three books and numerous articles on the topic, described UAlbany’s EOP practices as “cult-like.”

“One common behavior in hazing would be to separate the newcomers from the rest of the campus population,” Nuwer said.

Of the two forms of hazing Nuwer described, the EOP’s association policy rises to the level of non-criminal hazing.

Whether criminal or not, it is shocking to some that hazing of any kind would occur in a university sanctioned program.

Nuwer agreed with this sentiment.

“I wouldn’t want to be sending my child there,” he said.

EDUCATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Not only do the EOP’s restrictive policies mirror some common hazing behaviors, but the themes of exclusion and isolation oppose national trends in mainstream education.

“I’m actually surprised to hear that they [EOP] emphasize separation over integration,” said Alan Oliveira, associate professor in UAlbany’s Department of Educational Theory and Practice.

Oliveira, who studies methods of integrating English language learners in foreign communities, explained that mainstream pedagogy is wavering from using separation tactics in schools.

“The [national] trend right now in education, I would describe as nourishment and integration,” he said. “Not separation or a disciplinarian kind of approach.”

Much of Oliveira’s research experience is with grades K-12, but he was confident of the notion that the broader theories of inclusion and integration apply also to budding college freshman.

Although no one standard for educational practices exists in the U.S., basic theories such as the ones proposed by Oliveira guide policy in schools across the country.

By employing these harsh punishments, the EOP is attempting to ready students for a college environment, said Martinez.

Although the intent of the program is to propel their students to success, there is little evidence that suggests imposing these unorthodox punishments actually helps the students.

“It doesn’t sound like it could possibly prepare them for the freedom and independence of college,” said Heidi Andrade, professor of educational psychology at UAlbany.

This sentiment was reflected by a student, who requested to remain anonymous in fear of retribution from EOP officials. She explained that the SAs were required to accompany the orientation group at all times, whether in class or to the doctor’s office.

“The SA would sit in the classes to make sure everything was fine,” the student said. “At college, no one is going to sit there making sure you do all the things you need to do.”

Andrade, who specializes in self-regulated learning, said, “Unless you have people who are really, really out of control, the best thing to do is teach them how to regulate themselves instead of trying to regulate them.”

Andrade said also that discipline is not something that can be taught in five weeks or even a semester.

“It takes longer than that,” she said.

A JOKING MATTER?

Until several weeks ago, the EOP Instagram featured photo collages created by an EOP counselor, Claudio Gomez, which make light of the secretive first night practice. These photos have since been removed.

The caption written by the EOP Instagram account holder read, “We feel your pain EOP scholars,” attempting to humorously acknowledge the demands of the summer program.

Marking their completion of the program, students are seen wearing EOP branded shirts around campus including ones that read: “EOP Proud.”  

After completing the five-week orientation, the most recent batch of summer graduates, who wrapped up in early August, were given black t-shirts with white lettering that read: “I survived EOP summer.”

After “surviving” her summer program, an EOP student the ASP interviewed who requested to remain anonymous, said she was happy to have survived the five weeks. Unlike the rest of her classmates, she opts not to wear EOP garb, a symbol of her freedom and desire to no longer be segregated from the rest of the undergraduate population.  

12 Comments

  1. Ahmad Abuawad
    October 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm — Reply

    Comparing EOP summer to some sort of draconian punishment is a huge exaggeration. Your article undermines the integrity of the EOP program and what it is trying to accomplish. I am not an EOP student, but I’ve seen very closely what their program constitutes. They are producing quality students whom some are very undisciplined to receive a college education. The EOP Program is giving its students and others associated with it the tools to succeed, but you compared it to a prison which it most certainly is not as if it is some sort of rehabilitation institute.. Associating this program with Hazing is ridiculous when their program has never meant to belittle anyone but to inspire students to do great things with their life. This article should be retracted.

  2. IQBAL HAQUE
    October 25, 2016 at 5:11 pm — Reply

    This is the most ignorant post I have ever read in my entire life. While focusing on a few segments in a program that is intended to enrich someone’s life, you cherry pick some parts out of context and you exaggerate them beyond belief. The most dubious part of this article is the “hazing process” that EOP supposedly conducts on to their students. If you consider taking away a cell phone for a few weeks and enforcing students not to talk to strangers… “hazing”, then shouldn’t our mothers feel ashamed, that they have been hazing us our entire lives. In fact, in that sense, the whole college experience might as well be a four year rush event, where students undergo stress, financial burden, sacrifices and even humility just to attain a degree. Other than defining what hazing is, all of the core parts of the program have been conviniently left out. Like practicing to study, working on individual weakness to better oneself,taking free remedial classes and perhaps most importantly networking for an entire month to gain a vast pool of connections from directors of multiple programs and departments to the sodexo workers themselves and making friends that feel like their your own brothers and sisters before you even take your very first step into college. Lastly, the most misleading part of this article is the assumption that ” their is little evidence to conclude that these practices help the students”. You should hire a better research analyst as EOP’s graduation and retention rate, are higher than non-eop students, those statistics speak for themselves as to whether it helps a student or not. —-Iqbal Haque. Eop, UA”18″.

  3. October 25, 2016 at 10:01 pm — Reply

    It’s too bad that a program that prepares students for the rigors of college life is castigated for being rigorous. As a former EOP student, I can attest to the importance of the summer program for being a formative apparatus that showed me how to be successful; not just in undergrad but in life. For some students, the discipline of the summer program is entirely new and off-putting. Yet, because you don’t understand the need for a thing is not a warrant to dismiss it as an anachronism that causes harm. Failing your freshmen year because you lacked the discipline and were unprepared for the rigorous of a college environment could. The skills and friends I made in the summer of ’96 is what sustained me through my graduation in ’00 and ’02. Thank you Maritza, Claudio, and the EOP staff for the extraordinarily tough work you do. I recognize articles like this are discouraging, but I thank you for the love and support throughout my academic career (including my rigorous summer experience)!

    • EOP Alumni
      October 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm — Reply

      Thank you for putting my thoughts into words! Dr. Carr prepared me for the world. My success I attribute to this program. Summer EOP PREPARES you for life. I am thankful for my experience. This article is grossly inaccurate and does not depict the program’s experience. Thank you to the many EOP staff members that mold future minds to succeed.

  4. Kristina S.
    October 26, 2016 at 12:31 am — Reply

    Being an underprivileged white girl going through this program was tough too, I didn’t fit into their stereotypical guidelines. I didn’t want to be segregated from the rest of the university and I definitely had a hard time being proud of the program. The way they talked to the group of us, they made us feel bad about our situation, like our parents didn’t try hard enough… But they didn’t take the time to learn everyone’s story, people face financial hard ships for many reasons but they treated all of us like a bunch of thugs. It just didn’t make me feel like I fit in.

    The program wasn’t as intense when I went through it, but I agree with the non criminal hazing, and it seems like it got a whole lot worse since I went through the program 10+ years ago. It’s a shame especially because it’s suppose to help the students, but in all honesty it really does some long term damage to some.

  5. New york
    October 26, 2016 at 12:50 pm — Reply

    What a well written article! I myself am an EOP graduate class of 2013. I can totally relate to the strict rules and policy that we must follow in order to survive EOP summer. EOP has its main benefits where it helps inner city kids who are disadvantaged when it comes to being economically or academically disadvantage. EOP is many students way out from the hood and their only way of building a better life and the opportunity of going to college. However, EOP keeps us segregated from the rest of the undergraduate class. People who qualify for EOP are already segregated from the rest of the world where many of us come from New York City and we are used to our neighbors and seeing the same people everyday. For many of us, college can be the first time where we interact with different races and different ethnicities and also interact with people of different economic classes. EOP not only must create unity and a sense of belonging with its EOP class, but it must also foster inclusion of everyone on campus. Students need to be aware that in the real world after college, work places are diverse and sometimes you might be the only minority working in your department. Instead of focusing on what students are wearing, who they are talking to, and what they are eating. Let EOP show students how to be independent and not become a crutch for them as soon as EOP summer is over and fall semester has begun and a student is failing a class, the first thing that student does is go directly to Martiza and tells her they need to drop a class.

    Also please fire Claudio Gomez, there have been way too many rumors of him sleeping with students.

    • A Concerned Alum
      October 26, 2016 at 8:13 pm — Reply

      First of all, there are several things I think are wrong with your comment. I will begin with “EOP keeps us segregated from the rest of the undergraduate class.” While this may hold true for the summer, to my understanding there is no such restriction once the semester starts for EOP students to be “segregated” from the rest of population. Also, while “People who qualify for EOP may consider themselves segregated from the rest of the world” the EOP summer program actually has the students engaging with a diverse array of other students, administrators, and individuals from all different walks of life (in every sense). Secondly, EOP’s sense of commitment and service extends to all students on campus not just to EOP. I know because of all the individuals in EOP who have assisted me through my walk of life and I was not even an EOP student (and I’m not alone in that). The EOP complex and the programs there make you feel accepted in a way that is real and deep and a part of the UAlbany community. Thirdly, I’m not sure about you but when I attended UAlbany speaking to your advisor or counselor was not a crutch, ESPECIALLY when it came to dropping a class. There have been many times that I would have lost my financial aid and dropped below full-time student status if I never spoke to my advisors and mentors. And lastly, how dare you slander someone’s name because of “too many rumors”. You are an educated individual yet you are encouraging that someone lose their job due to “too many rumors”. That’s truly sad and ugly. EOP is the reason why countless number of students at UAlbany have succeeded and the summer program and its staff are a big reason why.

    • Sophia L
      November 2, 2016 at 8:30 am — Reply

      You sound so ungrateful it’s honestly so sad. People like you should not have deserved an opportunity like this if this is all you have to say about the program. The fact that you remained anonymous is humorous too. Next time own up to your words, coward.
      EOP does not segregate us from the rest of undergrad. It is up to the person him or herself to go about interacting with other students and I have seen that myself. You have to understand some students do not see being in EOP has a chance for a future and I’m sure you didn’t see it like that either.

  6. Maritza Martinez
    October 26, 2016 at 5:14 pm — Reply

    Please do not defame the character of any person in EOP. These are some of the most dedicated individuals I’ve had the pleasure to have worked with in my 31 years in this program. No one would like this done to them.

    • October 31, 2016 at 9:18 pm — Reply

      Most times I have spoken to Maritza or the EOP staff over the past year or so, they were busy taking care of an EOP student in crisis (vertigo, hospitalization, etc.). I love everything about the Educational Opportunities Program. I graduated SUNYA in 1998 with a BS. I double majored in Physics and Business with a double minor in Math and Computer Science. But I learned about how to be a professional from working for EOP. I learned that being on time is being late, because anything could properly delay you for a few minutes … and then you’re late. I worked under Dr. Carson Carr in EOP for most of my undergrad. That included, the computer room, the tutorial lab, the math and writing lab, and Dr. Carr even trusted me with a graduate position as a study group coordinator.

      Which brings me back to the last year or so I have been interacting with Maritza. After leaving SUNYA I worked in Information Technology for a little over 10 years, then another 10 years in Intellectual Property for the Federal Government. But it was Dr. Carr that I always made the trip back to Albany to consult with. He advised me to go to law school, and it was Dr. Carr that I was looking for after publishing my first book, last July (2015), to ask him how he thought I could use my book to reach out to students. Maritza gave me the news that Dr. Carr had passed. However, she also told me that she wanted me to come to speak to her students at their summer orientation program. I could not have been more ecstatic. I was alive while I was working with the students and counselors in EOP, and I was getting an opportunity to come back and share my experiences with them, now, in a very different way. My wife and daughter came with me. The students were just wrapping up their last week in the program. And they were just as hard working and wonderful as I remembered them almost 20 years ago.

      Dr. Carr’s wife Joyce agreed to write the prelude to my next book – which is being dedicated to Dr. Carson Carr. Because that is the impression that EOP has left on thousands of students all over the world and definitely on me. I have started a global public speaking initiative with some partners in the US and Canada (www.thepsychologyofman.com), and I am back once again looking to Maritza to me get a couple students – EOP students – to work as interns to help us out. I started a scholarship for the EOP students (www.improvementscholarship.com). I’m still in fundraising mode, in hopes of it becoming an endowment, so that they can benefit from this initiative forever.

      Yes, the program looks like it could benefit from being more inclusive. But please put that against the backdrop of a program that has unequivocally changed the lives of countless students for the better. You should be so lucky to have someone like Maritza and her staff pouring their heart and soul into your freshman students. And I think the students realize that too. Just give some of them a little more time to understand what they were really being prepared for.

  7. A frustrated upperclassmen
    October 29, 2016 at 11:08 pm — Reply

    As a current EOP student in good standing my main gripes come from the program’s “babying” of its students. Things such as required Freshman & Sophomore year experience courses and financial aid workshops are wastes of state funding, time, and resources.

    If a student cannot take it upon themselves to learn the important aspects of their financial aid situations, they are simply irresponsible & not fully matured. Likewise, many of the things considered “coursework” in the EOP UNI courses include assigning elementary level reading and subject matter to its students. Assignments based on “Personality” quizzes and study habits, table etiquette, and even how to shake another person’s hand… Things a college undergrad should already know.

    Also, the required library hours are PATHETIC. If a student doesn’t have enough self-responsibility and discipline to study ON THEIR OWN TIME efficiently they DO NOT belong at an institution of higher education. Having students who aren’t even at academic risk, especially those with GPAs much higher than 3.0s be BABYSAT while they study/work is LAUGHABLE & SAD.

    I did not take out 20 thousand dollars in student loans to be REQUIRED to take courses like UNI which are ELECTIVES that offer coursework that is a WASTE of time & elementary in subject matter!
    I could really go on & on but I’d rather sum up my venting with this conclusion

    While program aims to give underprivileged young people a second chance for a wonderful education, it fails to view the students in its programs as individuals. You have many scholars and hard working pupil in this program but you also have some who are undisciplined, and simply need a crutch to progress. If you are a hard working student who is aspiring, disciplined, and ready on your own for the world this program will make you feel marginalized and frankly like a high schooler rather than the young professionals that you are.

    As far as the whole EOP is family thing goes, that’s all well & good but at the end of the day I’m here for my intellectual, professional, and academical development, not a safety group.

  8. Clark
    October 31, 2016 at 11:49 am — Reply

    Waaaa. A program has strict standards and rules. Less successful programs should be following such standards.

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