“Cult-like” Atmosphere Found in UAlbany Summer Program
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.