Newark, NJ—In the aftermath of the Newark riots in the summer of 1967, New Jersey's newly-appointed Chancellor of Higher Education Ralph Dungan directed a proposal to the presidents of all of the state's institutions of higher education.
The proposal outlined a broad range of programs to assist young men and women from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds and set out to address the conditions contributing to the city's recent unrest as cited by the newly-formed Select Commission on Civil Disorders in February, 1968.
Among these programs was the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), which set out to serve low-income, first-generation students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who demonstrated commitment, motivation and potential.
The EOF program, which is governed by a governor-appointed board of directors, provides supplemental financial aid to help cover college costs such as books, fees and room and board that are not covered by the state's Tuition Aid Grant program and supports a wide array of campus-based outreach and support services at community colleges and four-year public and private universities and colleges throughout New Jersey.
There are currently 55 EOF programs throughout the state, with each college and university campus responsible for student recruitment, selection, program services and its own specific criteria for EOF admission and program participation.
More than a dozen district and charter schools throughout Newark participate in the program.
Montclair State University (MSU) boasts a vibrant EOF program that currently provides access for more than 700 students from underrepresented populations and areas who meet the income criteria and exhibit the potential for high achievement.
As part of the program, MSU holds a rigorous six-week summer academy that provides incoming students with skills, resources and counseling that contribute to keeping close to 90 percent of the first-year scholars in school.
In addition, MSU hosts a variety of EOF events during the year, including an EOF Recruit Day and the annual Boys to Men Conference in November, which was attended this year by more than 200 young men from Newark.
MSU Vice President of Student Development and Campus Life Karen Pennington noted the impact of the program over the last five decades.
“In the past 50 years, the EOF program has had a tremendous impact – not only on students, but on the university and on the State of New Jersey," she said. "Students for whom a college education might otherwise be just a dream are able to achieve that dream while contributing to the campus environment and ultimately to their community at large. The state achieves more because of this commitment to making access to a college education available to everyone.”
MSU EOF Executive Director Daniel Jean, who also serves as the university’s Executive Director of Academic Development, is a product of the EOF program—a Newark native who brought himself up from a 1.9 Grade Point Average to earning his doctorate degree from Seton Hall University.
Jean’s retention initiatives have resulted in a 91.9 percent first-year retention rate and a 50 percent increase in the four-year graduation rate of a so-called “special admit” population. Under Jean’s leadership, four-year graduation rates among EOF students rose from 29 percent to 46.8 percent between 2014-2016--an increase of 61 percent.
Jean is also the chair and founder of three statewide college access and awareness conferences--which brings over 1,000 high school students to campus annually-- as well as the founder of the Richard Wilson/Jason James Mentorship Program for high school and college students, young professionals and doctoral candidates and the Male Education Network (MEN) professional consortium for men in Pre-K-20+ education.
“The program transformed my life, both personally and professionally,” Jean said. “As a Newark native, I’m trying to provide opportunities.”
The Boys to Men Conference started in 2011 and is a life-changing experience for participants, Jean said.
The conference, which hosts students and mentors who are treated to a lineup of inspirational speakers and discussions, is organized to engage young men both academically and socially and offers a program of professional development resources and informative sessions on a variety of topics, such as applying to college and outlining career goals.
“We had 400 high school males from New Jersey, and 250 slots for Newark boys,” Jean said.
Jean often quotes Rahfeal Gordon, an alumnus of MSU’s EOF program who has gone on to become a global leadership advisor, entrepreneur and author.
“As Rahfeal Gordon says, your location is not your destination,” Jean said. “We need to make certain that our students know that the EOF is a vehicle and one of the best vehicles in the state.”
Gordon, a Newark native who graduated from Newark Arts High School, said the EOF program changed the trajectory of his life.
“What the EOF program did for me was introduce me to a world I wasn’t familiar with,” Gordon said. “I didn’t think I was college material but the program gave me that chance and opened up my horizons.”
Gordon calls the program crucial for students coming from backgrounds similar to his own.
“The EOF program was a huge resource and a necessity for a student like me,” he said. “It provided a network of support and kept us motivated and inspired. The program was my way into college. I didn’t have the resources but they saw my potential.”
NPS Special Assistant for College and Career Access Kelly Williams said the partnership between the NPS Office of Student Support Services and MSU's EOF program began early last school year when both she and Jean realized that students were matriculating into four year colleges and universities at lower rates than their counterparts in suburban areas.
"The idea was to forge a partnership to host a number of events throughout the school year to expose students to the importance of attending college, healthy relationships, financial literacy, mentorship, manhood, and effective leadership," Williams said. "The primary purpose of the male empowerment events is to increase the number of men of color applying and ultimately attending colleges and universities."
Newark native Chris Catching, an EOF alumnus and the incoming Vice President for Student Affairs at Stockton University, graduated from the program in 1999 and went on to earn his Master’s Degree from New York University and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.
“The EOF program served as a foundation for my passion and career, and served as the foundation for my life’s work in education,” Catching said. “It had a huge impact not only on my career but on my whole family. What was important about the EOF program was that it was transferable.”
Catching, the first in his family to graduate from college, inspired his three younger sisters, who all went on to graduate from college.
“I think in many ways that's the bigger story,” he said. “The program can be transferred from one individual and impact the broader family.”
People’s Preparatory Charter School (PPCS) has been participating in the Boys to Men Conference since 2013, with PPCS graduates also taking part in MSU’s EOF program during the summer of 2016.
College Advisor Darren Harper said the school works with EOF offices at various campuses to ascertain admissions requirements and standards and to begin assisting students with all stages of the application process.
The school also hosts on-site visits from EOF admission representatives so that students can familiarize themselves with the program.
“Beyond just the financial benefits, the EOF program provides an additional and familiar layer of support for our students,” Harper said, who also noted that it provides PPCS staff with another on-campus office liaison to assist students with navigating the campus and their own personal college journeys. “
Harper said PPCS has extensive alumni support programming and that the school connects with students on their campuses several times a year.
“While on campus, we make it a point to connect with EOF counselors and find out how we can complement and supplement their work,” he said. “It is actually a partnership we begin building prior or during application season that carries into students completing paperwork to matriculate. These partnerships have permitted improved communication to students and families, earlier intervention when problems arise, and easing the social transition to college.”
Deputy Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Robert Gregory said the program's mission is to ensure students reach their full potential.
“It is required that all of our programs be linked to learning with a goal to expose the genius in every student,” Gregory said. “Programs like our partnership with Montclair State University are essential to exposing our students to the college experience before college. Under the direction of Dr. Kelly Williams, we have developed a series of programs throughout the school year that will get NPS students ready and excited about their college experience.”