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Three sisters share a dream, then an alma mater

(From left) Elizabeth Angelillo, Christina Perez-Burby, and Cynthia Rivera are shown here at the EOP 50th anniversary celebration in Alumni Hall on June 29. (Photo by Johnathon Henninger)

By Loretta Waldman

When they were girls living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., two sisters dreamed of growing up to be career women. With some help from the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at CCSU, Elizabeth Angelillo and Christina Perez-Burby realized their dream years later and a world away in Connecticut.

Now married with children and in professions that they love, Rivera and Angelillo look back on those days and marvel. Their intertwined stories are filled with setbacks and challenges that they overcame through sheer determination and the love and encouragement of their strict but selfless mother. The experiences made them who they are today, they say. EOP even inspired their older sister, Cynthia Rivera — who did not attend EOP — to later earn her degree at CCSU.

“EOP paved the way for my successful future,” says Elizabeth, who took part in the program during the summer of 1994. “I became confident in my academic abilities and mastered study skills, time management, and communications skills.”
Christina notes, “I was surrounded by staff that looked like me, and it gave me hope that, just like them, I could be successful too.”

Elizabeth, the youngest of the three sisters, worked for 10 years as a family relations counselor in state Superior Court in New Britain and is now an entrepreneur. Both Christina and Cynthia are marriage and family therapists at Connecticut Junior Republic, a nonprofit care, treatment, education, and support agency for at-risk and troubled youth.

Christina remembers first hearing about EOP when Elizabeth came home from a presentation about it at Bristol Central High School. Elizabeth urged her to apply, telling her, “We can do it together!” Cynthia was living and working in New York City at the time and didn’t think she was cut out for college. She later moved to Connecticut and enrolled at CCSU in 1998.

“At the time I honestly did not realize how important EOP was and how their acceptance into the program would later impact my life,” Cynthia says.

A ‘Hard-Knock Life’
Growing up in New York City was not easy, the sisters say. The family, which included their younger brother, William, lived in a sprawling housing project in a neighborhood they called “The Jungle” because of the prevalence of drugs, violence, and gangs.

Their parents were separated and their mom, Elizabeth Perez, worked two jobs to provide for the family. She struggled at times to pay for food and to keep the lights and gas on. Christina remembers the embarrassment she felt the times she had to pay for groceries with food stamps and the generosity of neighbors who let them run an extension cord from their apartment until the light bill could be paid.

Despite the hardships, they still managed to have fun. Cynthia remembers cleaning the floors with her sisters on Saturday mornings, singing “It’s A Hard Knock Life,” from the musical Annie while the three of them slid across the floor on their knees.

“We had family, love, and happiness because that is all we knew,” Christina says. ”What little money my mom had, she shared with everyone.”

Her advice still rings in Christina’s ears: Never give up. Be smart. Go to school.

“My mother became my hero, and her sacrifices are why we are here today,” Christina says.

New home, new obstacles
In search of a better life and good education for her children, their mom eventually moved to Connecticut with Elizabeth, Christina, and William. Elizabeth, 13 at the time, remembers her first day at Bristol Central High School as very scary. Connecticut was the country compared to where they had lived. Students dubbed her and Christina the “New York sisters” for the way they talked and dressed, a name that stuck with them until they graduated from the school.

With time, both girls adjusted and thrived. They started a dance club with their new friends and ran track. Elizabeth was class treasurer and, in her senior year, Christina was crowned prom queen. Still, obstacles remained. As her friends were applying for college, Elizabeth remembers being confused about why she wasn’t being advised to do the same. She can still see the blank stare on her guidance counselor’s face when she asked for a letter of recommendation.

“Elizabeth, you are not college material,” the counselor told her bluntly.

Christina remembers running into the bathroom crying when the same counselor told her the same thing. But in the end it was their mother’s advice that won the day.

“Don’t listen to her,” she told Elizabeth and Christina. “You’re both going to college.”

A short time later, Elizabeth met an EOP representative and was invited to attend a presentation about the program. She ran home with the application to show her mother and convinced Christina, who had been working at a Roy Rogers restaurant since graduating the year before, to apply along with her. Tears of joy streamed down her mother’s face when the two girls were accepted into EOP, Elizabeth says.

Christina remembers her five weeks in the program as being a transformative time. A girl who never spoke or shared her feelings or opinions, now found herself competing for scholarships in public speaking.

“I discovered I had a voice and lots to say and that others listened,” she says. “I said good-bye to fear and welcomed confidence.”

C.J. Jones, then director of EOP, gave them the chance to prove they had what it takes to be college students, according to Elizabeth. EOP was not easy to complete, but she was determined to get through it.

“You were either going to sink or swim. I swam for dear life,” says Elizabeth.

Celebrating success

Elizabeth received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Psychology from CCSU in 1998 and a master’s in Counseling and Student Development in Higher Education in 2000. Christina graduated in 1999, with a BA in Special Studies, Graphic/Information Design and a minor in Marketing. Cynthia graduated from CCSU in 2011 with a degree in Sociology. She and Christina went on to earn their master’s degrees together in Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Saint Joseph.

The three sisters were among a group of distinguished CCSU alumnae honored in February at Central’s third Women of Influence Gala. They were also on hand in June for the 50th anniversary celebration of the EOP.

“Through our trials and tribulations, we vowed to not be a statistic,” says Elizabeth. “We promised each other we would support one another and pay it forward by being role models for kids facing the same challenges.”

“The program changed my life,” Christina adds. “It taught me to never give up, never settle, work hard and play later. I discovered I had this quiet courage that could not be tamed. That I can achieve anything.”

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