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Realizing My Potential Through the Higher Education Opportunity Program

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Although I am a first-generation college student, I never questioned whether college was an option for me. From a very young age, my mother made sure my brother and I knew that we had to go to college after high school.

Even though I became anxious during senior year thinking about how expensive it might be for my family to support me going away for college, my mother reassured me that she would do anything she could to help put me through college.

I went into the application process blindly, looking at “top” schools because of my grades and applying to schools my guidance counselor told me were “safety” schools because of my GPA. Despite my mother’s relentless reassurance that she would take out loans if she needed to, I hoped for generous financial aid packages and scholarships to not burden the household.

I was confident. As part of the top 10% of my high school class, I anticipated getting many acceptances and scholarships. Although I was nervous about the Ivy League schools I applied to, I knew that I would end up somewhere, and wholeheartedly believed that I would get scholarships based on my grades.

However, that confidence in my academic ability and worthiness to get accepted into college quickly vanished during the transition to college. Having received a conditional acceptance to Cornell University through the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), a state grant program for low-income families that provides additional financial and academic support to students, I was required to complete a summer bridge program to enroll in the fall.

Despite being accepted into many other schools with generous financial aid packages and scholarships, Cornell was the most competitive school I was accepted into and offered a full-ride because of their financial aid packages and my acceptance through the HEOP program. Unaccustomed to having to do summer school or having a “conditional” acceptance, I remember doing research online where I saw that the program helped support students who did not necessarily have a college-preparatory curriculum in high school. Although my excitement about Cornell did not diminish, I do remember beginning to question my academic ability.

The Pre-freshman Summer Program (PSP) at Cornell acclimated me well to the resources on campus. I was required to meet with my academic adviser, my HEOP counselor and a peer mentor on a weekly basis to talk about my transition and academic success at Cornell. I made friends with a lot of students like me who were either in HEOP or required to attend the summer program for similar reasons.

As an undeclared major who was interested in the sciences, I took a pre-calculus class, a general chemistry prep class and a psychology class during the summer. Although difficult, the structure of the program made it nearly impossible to fail since there was so much support made available in the residence hall and all over campus for the PSP students. I ended the program once again feeling confident about my ability to succeed, but my confidence diminished again during the fall semester.

My first semester at Cornell was embarrassing. My attempt with the pre-med track was a catastrophe. I tried to take calculus and chemistry the same semester. By the second exam in calculus, I knew I had to drop the class because there was no way I was going to get perfect scores on the next few exams. Withdrawing from Calculus made me “under-credit,” putting my financial aid on the line since I was no longer considered a full-time student.

Although I wasn’t failing chemistry, I dreaded class — especially lab, where my partners questioned everything I did and would recreate all our experiments because they did not trust my data. During the first day of lab, I overheard one of my lab partners tell the other one to weigh the flasks again because I had “gone to the summer program for low SATs.”

I found my home in sociology, where I encountered courses that talked about systemic inequality. However, it was probably these courses specifically that made me question my belonging at Cornell because of the types of issues we would talk about in class.

I recall a social inequality class when we talked about affirmative action. I left that class feeling that my peers thought I didn’t deserve my place at Cornell. My ethnicity and lack of a “quality” education got me a “pity” acceptance into Cornell. Although these debate-structured exercises were to spur dialogue, I could just feel that some of my peers thought that way, and it was unsettling.

If not for the HEOP program, the office and its staff, I doubt I would have been able to graduate from Cornell. Beyond the financial and programmatic support, these people cared about me and my success. My counselor and mentor, William “Woodg” Horning, had a way of making me reframe what I was experiencing. Rather than question my ability, or make me think I was a pity acceptance, he reminded me of how hard I was working to stay and thrive at Cornell. He made me realize that the students who were successful at Cornell weren’t automatically brilliant, they had a work ethic to propel them forward and knew how to ask for help.

Being successful in college wasn’t necessarily about getting the highest scores at Cornell, but rather fostering relationships with your professors, using the resources made available to all students and putting your best effort forward. Although I may not have achieved the dean’s list every semester, and in some classes my best effort resulted in a C, that did not mean I was incapable. I just had some work to do on how I prioritized my time, and my maturity at the time sometimes put socializing and campus engagement over my studies because of how I would feel when I was studying.

The HEOP network goes beyond Cornell. As I pursued a master’s in higher education, I met Blanca Vega, a former HEOP director who was completing her doctoral degree at Teachers College at the time. As soon as she heard I was a HEOP student, I gained a mentor. I followed her dissertation journey and saw the incredible work she was doing for her HEOP students at Marymount Manhattan College. She modeled ways to be a scholar, activist and administrator, and her writing pushed me to merge my identity and scholarship.

Opportunity programs are more than financial and academic support. When I doubted my ability, it was my peers and the staff of the HEOP office who pulled me out of that funk. When done correctly, opportunity programs foster a sense of community on campus where students feel safe to struggle and know that they have the support necessary to overcome the obstacles that come along with being underprepared for college – not by choice, but by circumstance.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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