Without EOF, I Might Have Stayed in Poverty or Worse

By James H. Whitney III

As a young man, I was headed not toward college but toward trouble when I came to a crossroads. The sign said “Rutgers EOF” and I took it. I am the better for it.

Today, Rutgers University-New Brunswick celebrates 50 years of the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF). As we mark this milestone, we should all appreciate how and why it remains the most comprehensive statewide program for academic success in American higher education.

My journey to Rutgers can only be attributed to the Educational Opportunity Fund. Like many African-American males who are the first in their family to attend college, my quest seemed bleak. My mother died when I was 11. My father struggled with drug and alcohol addiction after many tours in the Army. This left my 23-year-old sister as my only support. We struggled, often moving from apartment to apartment, not having money for food and electricity or extras that many of my peers had.

Among the biggest hurdles was saving and planning for college. My sister, to whom I am eternally grateful, worked three low-paying jobs just to support us. Thankfully, she put me in a great public school, where I became a student-leader and did well academically, but I succumbed to poor peer influences that almost led to prison.

Nonetheless, my high school guidance director connected me to the Rutgers EOF program, which helps academically talented students who need personal, academic and emotional support. At 18, I received a call from then-EOF Director Wally Torian and Admissions coordinator Randall Westbrook. They told me I could attend Rutgers and that EOF would help me.

That day changed my life.

Twenty years ago, I spent my first summer as an incoming EOF student at Rutgers. I was scared, confused and worried.

But, the director and staff treated me as a special part of Rutgers and supported me until I graduated. That support ranged from basic necessities like food and healthcare to allowing me to be a leader and earn an income as an independent student. As a result, I graduated in four years and earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate.

Today, through my role of assistant vice chancellor, I continue the cycle of lifting up those in need. I have served my alma mater, which has helped me defy the stereotypes stacked against me. 

Created in 1968 under the direction of then-Assemblyman Thomas Kean at the height of the civil rights movement In 1968, the EOF program was one of the state’s boldest moves to close the economic, racial and social  divide of the late 1960s. Many believe the advocacy of Rutgers students led to this groundbreaking legislation, which has greatly increased enrollment of low-income, first-generation and historically-underrepresented students at our states’ colleges and universities.

Education has long been touted as the “great equalizer,” responsible for narrowing the gap between the rich and working poor. Despite efforts to confront this economic, social and cultural gap, it continues to cause significant barriers for many students across New Jersey and the United States. Rutgers has been undeniably successful in reducing this gap by supporting the largest EOF program in the state and by promoting the values – of fairness, accessibility and equity — that the program espouses. As the state university of New Jersey, Rutgers has supported and graduated more than 20,000 EOF students since the program’s inception.

The success of EOF is not just its modest financial support, but rather the individualized support that includes intensive academic advising, college planning and, most of all, mentorship. The EOF program at Rutgers-New Brunswick has a six-year graduation of 75.8 percent and a retention rate of 89.1 percent, which equals the graduation and retention rates for all students at the flagship campus. These averages are impressive, especially if we consider that national averages for first-generation and low-income students are significantly lower at 42 percent.

The EOF program has created a network of dedicated alumni, former staff and directors who are committed to student success through best practices passed down through generations of EOF cohorts. Many of the program’s first directors and early administrators are still working at Rutgers, providing support for a new generation of students. We continue to see our EOF alumni serving as program counselors and directors supporting the program just as they were supported.

EOF provided me with a family committed to my success in spite of my troubled past and lack of knowledge about the college culture.

The EOF program has also inspired Rutgers to develop new programs. In 2015, RU-1st was created, a New Brunswick-wide collaborative initiative that supports first-generation students who do not receive traditional grants. Also, Rutgers established the Paul Robeson Leadership Institute, which provides academic and financial support to young men and women from underrepresented communities in higher education.

Today, I am living proof of the benefits of Rutgers’ EOF program, which is part of the Student Access & Educational Equity department that I oversee along with other student support and academic excellence programs for Rutgers-New Brunswick. This would not have been possible without the love, guidance, and support of the EOF family.

James H. Whitney III is assistant vice chancellor for Undergraduate Academic Affairs at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

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