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EOP: 50 Years Old and Going Strong

Published: May 07, 2018

By Amy J. Barry

Half a century ago, CCSU launched a program that opened the doors of higher education to thousands of students to date, many of whom were the first in their families to attend and graduate college.

Known around campus by its acronym, EOP, the Educational Opportunity Program is a five-week summer program for high school seniors who have both the desire and potential to succeed in college-level classes but fall short of CCSU’s regular admissions standards. Students who complete the intensive preparatory program have achieved great successes in a variety of fields, including education, social work, law, and engineering.

Over the decades and over the miles, the majority of EOP alumni have stayed in contact, some remaining friends for life. On June 29 and 30 the program’s founders, administrators, students, and alumni will come together to celebrate EOP’s 50th milestone 50th birthday.

A clear vision

EOP has remained constant in its mission and goals over the years.

A candidate must be a Connecticut high school senior or have earned a General Equivalency Diploma; be among first generation of family attending college; and have an economic need.

EOP students live on campus in residence halls where they work with academic mentors. All expenses are paid, and graduates of EOP are admitted to CCSU as full-time, matriculated students.

The program was founded in 1968 by George Pattison III (known then as George Wyer). A young mathematics professor, he had just joined Central’s faculty the previous year, and discovered that there were a number of talented minority students in his classes who were falling behind because of a lack of preparation for the academic rigor and expectations of college.

“I was looking at work students were handing me at Central and I saw holes in their backgrounds I referred to as Swiss cheese,” Pattison says. “I realized the learning strategies of these students could stand some improvement. And I had a hunch we could fix this.”

Pattison saw a need that wasn’t being addressed at the University and with the support of the administration and fellow professors he designed and implemented a program that would close the gap.

“Initially we were looking at holes in the background of already admitted students, but thought, ‘Why don’t we target students who couldn’t quite make it into the door? Get these students together before college starts?’”

The program launched in the summer of 1969 with 31 students enrolled in the first session. Pattison says his wife, Beth Wyer, then assistant director and instructor of language arts at the university, was very much a part of the 1969 and 1970 summer programs.

After “test-piloting” the program for two years, Pattison says, “We found CJ (Jones) standing there, turned it over to him, and never doubted he would do a wonderful job.”

After five years, Pattison left CCSU for a position with the West Hartford public schools where he remained until he retired in 1998 and moved to Florida. However, along with Beth, he has stayed connected to the University and the program. He is currently writing a paper titled “EOP: The Founding Years: 1969 & 1970.”

As for EOP’s success and longevity, Pattison notes, “We put down a solid set of rules and principals. I was confidant that if the university followed them, we would have success — and we did.”

The next 25 years

Charles “CJ” Jones became EOP’s first full-time director in 1970, soon after he graduated from Central. The first generation of his family to attend college, he went to Central to play college basketball and remained at the university for his entire career before he retired in 2009. He directed EOP for 25 years, while working his way up from assistant basketball coach to athletic director.

Five years ago Jones received a letter from a student in the Class of 1988 that said, “I just want to thank you. My son has been accepted to Harvard.”

“At that moment, a light went on,” Jones says. “Wow, we were affecting generations of kids who were going to places like Harvard, Cornell, University of Arizona — all because their parents had been instilled with education and went through the EOP program.”

Jones agrees with Pattison that the original goals of the program have remained the same.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about the program,” he says. “We used ditto machines then and now computers, but the need to have educated people for the workforce and students with potential but not the financial [means] or academic background has always been and remains the goal of the program and one of its core values.”

EOP today

Awilda Reasco is a textbook example of an EOP success story. A member of the EOP Class of 1980, she has been the program’s director since 2008.

“I was born in Puerto Rico, went to New Britain schools, grew up with a single mom raising five children,” Reasco says. “We didn’t talk about college at home. Women didn’t go to college in Hispanic culture and there were language barriers.

“I came through the EOP program and did very well,” she continues. “I learned the ropes of higher education, how to communicate, and gained self-confidence. It was a great faculty and they took me under their wings and supported me.”

Reasco went on to complete her bachelor’s in psychology at CCSU and her master’s in social work at UConn, which awarded her a full scholarship.

As an EOP student, Reasco told Jones — at just 17 years old — that she wanted his job.

“He said no one had ever told him that! I loved working with the program. It made such a big impact in the lives of so many people, including myself,” she says.

After working as a counselor with at-risk adolescents in the local community for several years, Reasco returned to CCSU and became coordinator of ConnCAP (Connecticut Collegiate Awareness and Preparation Program) and worked her way up to director of EOP. ConnCAP, along with EOP, falls under Central’s Pre-Collegiate and Access Service Department.

Reasco says the best part about her position as director is sharing her story with students and having the autonomy to come up with her own initiatives. These have included The William A. O’Neill Endowed Chair Public Service Scholarship Program, which, since 2009, has provided $193,000 in EOP scholarships.

The O’Neill Endowed Chair also co-sponsors the Passport to Global Citizenship Program to China for EOP students, increasing study abroad opportunities for under-represented students.

And, under Reasco’s leadership, enrollment in each summer session has increased steadily. This year, 75 students were admitted to the program.

“We’re looking into making it 100,” Reasco says, “and expanding the curriculum while keeping the classroom small because that’s what enables students to be successful. That will [require] more personnel to support their academic needs and getting more financial support from donors for our students.”

Anniversary festivities

Jones and his wife, Linda, another CCSU graduate, are helping to coordinate the EOP 50th birthday celebration.

“I’m trying to contain my excitement,” Jones says. “Students are coming from all over the country: Washington, California, Atlanta — from all different years, but all have that same EOP camaraderie and excitement.”

Jones wrote a book on the history of EOP that he hopes will be published by the 50th weekend. He’s also creating a video featuring interviews with approximately three dozen former EOP students for the event.

Reasco is also looking forward to the events.

“I’m very excited to bring everybody together who has experienced the uniqueness of this program,” she says. “We all have something in common, sharing our professions, sharing our own stories. And so many were the first to go to college, breaking the cycle of poverty, and able to give better things to their own children. That’s the essence of this program. Education is the key, and it changed our lives forever.”

Reflections of a recent EOP grad

Crystal Diaz graduated from Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden in 2014 with a cosmetology license, but she had always dreamed of becoming a teacher. She had applied to CCSU, but her SAT scores were too low. In July, Diaz entered the EOP program with 49 other students for what she describes as “five very intensive weeks.”

“It was very rigorous,” she says. “There was a lot of hard work, but it was very useful and I learned a lot in that one summer that I didn’t even learn in high school — even skills outside academic ones like networking and how to introduce yourself for jobs. But I liked the challenge and had my eye on becoming a teacher the fastest way possible.”

Diaz likes that EOP also teaches parents about college expectations.

“They help them with financial aid and explaining why colleges do certain things that [if] they didn’t go to college, they don’t understand,” she says. “My mom took advantage of all the useful tips.”

Another benefit that Diaz didn’t realize would come out of the program was the bond between the students.

“You feel like you’re in a family. Even it it’s too hard in the first week, you’re not going to leave, you feel you need to be there and [support] each other. We all stay in touch — we call each other, text each other — it’s really nice.

Diaz has also returned to the EOP program as a peer mentor and as assistant with Residence Life. In December she will receive a degree from CCSU to teach elementary education.

She has big ambitions for the future.

“I want to teach in New Britain where I believe there’s a great need, and especially with a college in town, I want kids to have a goal to continue their education at CCSU,” Diaz says. “I plan to go back for my master’s, and then maybe specialize in some area, and then maybe become a principal or superintendent. I definitely plan to keep growing.”

Half a century ago, CCSU launched a program that opened the doors of higher education to thousands of students to date.