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EOP carries on a 50 year legacy of high expectations

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Underneath the stairs from the Lecture Center to the Library, a heavy door swings open to let students enter a home they have found away from where they were first raised.

You can watch them buzzing like bees in and out of the complex of halls, offices, and rooms all day, from the early morning hours before a stressful exam to the darkness that falls as the dining halls close.

Some come from the inner city. Many are first-generation college students. Several grew up in rural America where this kind of diversity could only be found on a TV screen.

For a half a century, students have been entering the Educational Opportunity Program offices. They come to eat lunch with fellow EOP students, to visit EOP professors’ office hours, and sometimes, to cry on the shoulders of the men and women who have called themselves counselors there.

Conceived in the tumultuous Civil Rights era by a feisty young New York assemblyman, EOP continues to give students who would otherwise not be admitted to state universities the opportunity to get a college education.

Last weekend, hundreds of EOP graduates came together to celebrate the University at Albany EOP’s 50th anniversary and the practices that make it stand out among the 48 SUNY campuses who participate in the state-funded program.

Among the key features is a rite-of-passage five-week summer program for students accepted into EOP, with levels of discipline some critics have likened to non-criminal hazing. Then, EOP students’ first years of college are defined by strict attendance to special EOP-only courses meeting five days a week, on top of taking typical university classes.

But EOP’s graduates and directors say that the program’s high graduation rates and success stories speak for themselves.

Whatever one makes of the things EOP officials expect of their students, walking through those heavy doors under the library reveals an energy far different from the average academic department.

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At half past one o’clock on Monday, the top button on Patrick Romain’s green dress shirt is coming undone. The three students in his small office rest on his couches, and it would appear he is holding a conversation with all three at once.

He bustles around, sticking his head out the door and beckoning to one of the many other students congregating in EOP’s well-lit hallways. He enlists the tall boy’s assistance in stringing an electrical cord over a cabinet.

“I don’t want anything to fall down,” he says, eyeing a tented paper on top of his file cabinet.

At first glance one assumes this is his diploma. Actually, it’s a student’s certificate for entering the Honors College.

The color photo displays a beaming young Nasiratu Larry standing with those who have made an influence on her life. Smiling next to Larry’s high school teacher, Patrick Romain looks like a proud father.

Romain has many jobs. His official title is Senior Academic Advisor and EOP Counselor.

But like the other seven counselors in the little complex, Romain is often just someone that the EOP students can trust. After all, he survived the same high standards, discipline and rigorous coursework of EOP in the eighties.

That was soon after a strong-willed director took the reigns and became an EOP leader who students and staff would come to fear, and who many would come to respect.

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Dr. Carson Carr was six foot, seven inches, with a stone-set face and a demanding personality.

Coming in as director and EOP math teacher in 1985, students learned to never be late to his classes. Tardiness earned them harsh treatment from the former high school principal.

He was the one who made the infamous five weeks of summer orientation mandatory. He also worked with EOP’s faculty to mandate that students take intensive math and writing courses which each met five days a week.

Current director Maritza Martinez was a counselor in those days, and she remembers the struggle for students to adjust to Carr’s high expectations.

“Sometimes the tough love is not something that you necessarily understand when you’re 18,” she said.

But it was that tough love, that kind of discipline and bluntness, that slowly saved students lives, said Martinez.

“These kids that didn’t have dads, he was their father,” she said. “They came to him, and the lines would be long.”

More than a decade after Carr’s retirement, Martinez is often hailed in the hallways by a call of “Mama” from an EOP student.

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The 875 undergraduate EOP students at UAlbany right now face a high standard. The university brags about EOP’s graduation rate of 72 to 75 percent, a number well above the university average of 66 to 67 percent.

Only a small fraction of EOP freshman (7 percent) don’t continue on to sophomore year. But there are always a handful who don’t survive the prelude to their time in the program.

An article in the Albany Student Press in 2016 publicized the environment of discipline for the 17 and 18-year-olds who arrive in Albany for EOP summer — with rules like no cell phones outside of your room, no du-rags for men, no spaghetti straps for women, and timeouts like “lockdown” or “isolation” for rule-breakers.

While these rules are similar to those at some high school summer camps, one guideline is particularly controversial: No socializing with people outside EOP.

Martinez said this is both for protecting the students against potential predators, and to remind the youth that they are there for a reason.

“They don’t know who’s a friend and who’s not. They just got here,” said Martinez. “We want them to kind of get their head get wrapped around that this isn’t high school.”

EOP Director Maritza Martinez addresses students and alumni at EOP’s 2018 mass meeting.
Joe Hoffman / ASP

For Joshua Spaulding, EOP summer in 2016 was something to generate memories and group unity. But at the time, the rules — and the heat — could be frustratingly intense.

Spaulding grew up in Margaretville, NY, where the population is in the triple digits and big news was when a B-rate vampire movie director came to shoot background footage. His mother and father never earned college degrees, but they fought hard to give their children a path to an education.

With solemn eyes peeking out from beneath thick-rimmed glasses, Spaulding remembers how that summer brought him into contact with students of another religion, students who had a different sexual orientation, and students who didn’t listen to heavy metal.

There is a long pause when he is asked if he would enforce the same strict rules if he were in charge of EOP summer.

Yes, he says. How else would you unite kids from all walks of life?

Now as a junior, when Spaulding bumps into another EOP student, he exchanges knowing looks.

“I don’t know your name, I don’t know anything about you; all I know is we both went through that hellish summer.”

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Director Maritza Martinez strives to lead a family at EOP, but the family still must exist inside the confines of the university and the state as a whole.

Unlike every other EOP around New York, UAlbany’s program still hires their own faculty.

Professor Craig Hancock, hired by Dr. Carr in 1987, said EOP fought hard to be able to teach courses tailor-made to what their students need.

Hancock and Carr developed what they now call the “high-intensity” model for EOP students’ first two years.

That means a student like Josh Spaulding will begin freshman year attending a writing class that meets five days out of the week.

By definition, the hundreds of students selected each year to enter EOP require “special admissions consideration”; their SAT scores are lower and their high school transcripts aren’t pitch-perfect.

That’s why EOP’s math and English courses are specifically geared towards correcting learning habits and re-teaching English or math that they failed to learn in K-12 years.

“Historically, the programs have kind of lost or ceded control of the faculty. I think what makes our program successful is that it’s a fully integrated program,” Hancock said.

“I can walk down to Patrick and say, this student needs help with so and so, and Patrick can come down to me and say, ‘Hey what’s going on with so and so.’”

EOP has faced scrutiny statewide from the likes of governor George Pataki in 1994, who cut the program’s budget and made them shift from a five-year model to graduating students in four.

But the handiwork of Carson Carr, who passed away in 2014, is still visible in the intensive requirements that students must meet.

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On Sunday, hundreds of EOP students leaned forward in the SEFCU Arena bleachers as they listened to men and women who graduated from the program 20, 30 or 50 years before them.

If the students hadn’t shown up, they would have been in big trouble: They had seen the papers taped to the walls of the EOP complex announcing Sunday was a “Mandatory Mass Meeting.”

“Holds will be placed if you do not attend, no excuses accepted,” the sign read, referring to a freeze on students’ academic accounts and transcripts if they didn’t come to the meeting.

Many of the young men and women who have graduated from UAlbany’s Educational Opportunities Program have found places in the world as lawyers, insurance agents and union presidents; several of them have come back to EOP as counselors or teachers.

Joseph Edmondson, who graduated in 2002, told the students gathered at the mass meeting that being raised by a single mom in the projects of the South Bronx didn’t fill him with hope for a better future.

But then, EOP summer happened.

“That ended up being one of the best summers of my life,” said Edmondson.

Edmondson used his what he learned in his accounting classes to help his mother struggling with her finances when he went home for the holidays. He’s now a certified financial planner with Capital Management Group of New York.

The effects of EOP summer and its sharp discipline remains a lingering memory in student’s minds.

Wearing a custom basketball jersey from the game alumni and students played on Friday, Martinez paused in the middle of urging EOP students to register to vote.

“Put away those phones,” Martinez boomed over the loudspeakers.

“I’m not afraid to come up afterwards and take them away. I did during the summer, and staff did too.”

For 10 seconds, the huge arena was silent. Martinez’ eyes scanned the room as she waited for students to extinguish their glowing screens before she continued the meeting.

Some of the oldest alumni there did not go through the same EOP summer program that the students did. It used to be optional.

But regardless of when they graduated from UAlbany’s Educational Opportunities Program, they all can remember a time when they swung open the heavy door beneath the library stairs and were pushed to study, learn and achieve more than they expected of themselves.

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Joe Hoffman is the managing editor for the Albany Student Press.

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