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A magazine from California State University, Chico -- On-line Edition  
Fall 2006
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Photo by Thomas Del Brase

An Opportunity to Shine

The Educational Opportunity Program gives first-generation college students the chance to succeed

In the fall of 2006, I was teaching a CSU, Chico English department Academic Writing class, and one of my students was Yer Thao, a soft-spoken 17-year-old Hmong woman from nearby Oroville. My first writing assignment—intentionally vague and difficult—asked the writers to make some kind of claim about “the American experience.” I still remember reading Thao’s essay, in no small part because it made me weep, literally.

Thao (in photo above) wrote about first meeting her friend Mai, who had recently arrived in California from Thailand—both girls were 8—and who showed her a vision of America through the eyes of a refugee child. The paper was not only astonishing in its insight and vivid in its description, but it was nearly professional in polish and style. I don’t recall a single error, rare for an essay by a first-year college student.

Thao, who herself came to the United States from Laos when she was 4, is just one of some 12,000 Chico State students who might never have known the inside of a college classroom were it not for CSU, Chico’s Educational Opportunity Program, a recruiting and retention program about to turn 40. In fact, Thao credits EOP with helping her make a smooth transition from high school to college. “I really felt part of a community,” she says, “even though in some of my classes I was scared and felt all alone.”

One of the hurdles Thao faced when coming to Chico was less-than-enthusiastic parents, who didn’t think college was appropriate, especially because, as she says, “I’m a girl.” One of her sisters got married while still in high school, another after two years at Butte Community College. Thao was the first female in her family to move out of the house without getting married. “It was like going to war to convince my parents that I was going to be OK,” she says.

But they’ve come around, says Thao, a sophomore who works on campus in the Testing and Research Office. “They look at my grades and see I’m doing well.” Thao plans to study in Thailand in the 2008–2009 school year, and her parents are even “OK with that. I was surprised.”

Supporting students in need
Started as a pilot program in the fall of 1967, Chico State’s Educational Opportunity Program was one of the first in the CSU system and was officially recognized the following fall. A year later, in 1969, EOP became a CSU systemwide program. And it’s been growing—turning out an impressive number of graduates—ever since. In fact, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education identifies Chico State’s graduation rate for low-income students as among the highest in the CSU system.

EOP’s goals are simple: “to provide access and support services to first-generation students who are economically, educationally, and/or environmentally disadvantaged but display the potential to succeed in post-secondary education.” Potential, always difficult to quantify, is established by the students’ test scores, high school GPAs, work experience, co-curricular activities, and letters of recommendation from teachers, administrators, and coaches. Chico State’s 11 full-time staff and 16 student assistants serve roughly 1,200 students each semester—and welcome 300 new students each fall.

The program, funded by the state of California, offers broad support. First-time students are enrolled in “course links”—groups of 25 students attending an English, a communications, and a university-orientation class together. This provides them with a strong sense of community and mutual support, as well as opportunities to form study groups. Students are also required to meet with interns and “parapros” (paraprofessional advisors), upper-division students who assist them with their scheduling and monitor their academic progress, among other things. Additionally, the students must meet with their professors—and document those meetings—and attend a variety of study-skills workshops sponsored by the Student Learning Center.

A key part of EOP is its Summer Bridge Program, an intensive eight-day course designed to orient new students to the campus and the community and to give them a sense of the academic demands they’ll be facing. Students meet with EOP mentors, attend lectures by university professors, and participate in a wide range of workshops, including presentations on study skills, career choices, and health and wellness. They also get assistance with housing and registering for fall courses.

Traveling the road to success
It’s a long way from the strawberry fields of California’s Central Coast to a doctoral program in literature, but thanks to EOP, Felix Medina has found that route a whole lot easier to navigate. Born and raised in Watsonville, Medina, 23, is the first in his family to attend college. He is currently finishing his master’s degree in English as well as teaching an undergraduate Chicano literature course. He’s also won several grants and fellowships that have given him the opportunity to attend conferences and observe programs in other parts of the country.

Immigrants from Mexico, Medina’s parents supported the family by picking strawberries, apples, lettuce, raspberries, and peas throughout the Central Coast. “They worked whatever was in season,” says Medina. “My dad would take me and my sisters every other weekend to pick strawberries or raspberries so that we would know what life was like out in the fields.” Both of his parents eventually moved from the fields to work in the canneries, usually working graveyard shifts. Then the cannery where his dad worked for many years closed down, and he was left without a job.

Medina speaks highly of EOP and credits it with helping him find his way from the fields of Watsonville to graduate school. “Being a first-generation college student is pretty overwhelming,” he says, “especially since I lived far away from my hometown and didn’t really know any people on campus, but the people in the EOP office were like a family away from my actual family. They were the first people I met, and it was pretty reassuring to know that if I was confused about something, I could head directly to the EOP office and ask for help.”

English department professor Matt Brown is Medina’s thesis advisor, and the two have worked closely together designing the department’s Chicano Literature class, which Medina observed before teaching it himself this fall. But, Brown says, Medina completely redesigned the class, using very little of Brown’s material. “Felix was able to develop a new course that is better in every way than the class he observed,” says Brown.

Brown is also helping Medina negotiate his way through the labyrinthine process of applying to graduate schools. “The University is like Kafka’s castle,” says Brown. “It seems mystifying, complex, governed by arbitrary and shifting rules. I think students need someone to tell them that they have a right to everything the University has to offer—that it really is for them—and to show them the way around some of the roadblocks.”

Providing a solid foundation
EOP Associate Director Chris Malone (BA, Psychology, ’78) has been with the program since 1980 and has been instrumental in much of its growth. “EOP used to focus primarily on financial aid and tutorial services, but now we offer a huge range of types of support,” he says. “We also try to help prepare the students for life after college.” Another change Malone has seen is in the student population itself. “In the early 1980s, we had greater numbers of African American students,” he says. “Now we’re seeing a lot more Hmong and Latinos.”

Malone has also been around long enough that he has seen hundreds of success stories, students not only graduating despite tremendous odds, but also going on to successful careers. Among them is Vernon Andrews (BA, English, ’82; MA, Information and Communication Studies, ’89) who went on to earn a PhD from the University of Wisconsin and is currently a professor of American Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Andrews has lectured around the world and has published widely in his many areas of interest, particularly popular culture and race and ethnic issues in sports. In 2005, he returned to CSU, Chico to present a lecture, through the University’s Center for Applied and Professional Ethics, titled “African American Dissent in New York at the Republican National Convention.”

Afrack (BA, Political Science, ’98) and Sandra Lara Vargas (BA, French and Spanish, ’99), both EOP participants, met at Chico State when Afrack was president of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a [de] Aztlan). They were married in 2001. After graduating from Chico, Sandra received a teaching credential from CSU, Sacramento, taught for a year, and then went to work in the state capital. She was recently elected to the Board of Trustees of the Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento. Not only was she the first Latina ever elected to the board, but she set a record for the most votes ever received. Currently, she works as a legislative advocate for Strategic Education Services.

Afrack, a member of the Board of Directors of the CSU, Chico Alumni Association, left Chico to take a job as a firefighter at the State Capitol, then worked for the director of Government Affairs for the California State Firefighters’ Association. Currently, he lobbies the legislature and governor on behalf of firefighters from throughout California.

Another EOP success story is Kevin Bristow (BA, Psychology, ’03), recently hired to coordinate the Renaissance Scholars Program at CSU, East Bay. There he works as an advocate and ally for the 140 former foster youth attending the campus, a skill he fine-tuned working for Contra Costa’s Independent Living Skills Program. Bristow is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at CSU, East Bay.

Helping overcome obstacles
Josh Whittinghill (BA, Music, ’99; MA, English, ’06) is one of four EOP academic advisors, each with a specific population of students determined by fields of study; Whittinghill’s 300-plus advisees include students in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and the College of Communication and Education. “The hurdles these students face are unimaginable to many of the rest of the Chico State population,” says Whittinghill.

Indeed, while many students worry about where their tuition and book money will come from, EOP students typically have additional concerns. Since these students are the first in their families to attend college, parents, who in general encourage their children to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the University, often find the college experience so foreign that they are unable to provide the support that most students take for granted. In fact, says Whittinghill, “sometimes students go home for the weekend and their parents try to talk them out of going back.”

Whittinghill emphasizes that EOP is much more about academic support than financial support. While most EOP students do receive some financial aid based on family income and on class standing, the program is more focused on helping students overcome the hurdles they face as students.

Whittinghill particularly stresses the value of Summer Bridge, which 154 students attended this past summer and included four composition workshops taught by professors in the English department, among them Jill Swiencicki. “Our goal was to introduce students to ‘the work of the University,’ ” says Swiencicki. The students decided on a common theme—the role of photography in society—to explore, and, she says, they “had a wonderful time” researching everything from how images are used by the state for surveillance to their effect on women’s self-esteem. Swiencicki stresses that the professors “learned more from the students than I think they learned from us.” In fact, she adds, “the students’ motivation for being here makes me step up and work harder to be a better teacher.”

Looking to the future
Chela Mendoza Patterson is the current director of EOP. Originally from Oxnard, Patterson received a BA in sociology from UC Irvine in 1977. In 1979, she earned an MA in counseling and personnel service from University of Maryland, College Park, and she came to Chico in 1983. During the mid-1980s she worked as an advisor for EOP and then returned to school, earning an EdD in educational leadership from USC in 1998.

As far as plans go, Patterson is looking forward to expanding EOP’s involvement in the First Year Experience program and working more closely with second-year students, as well as to “transitioning our students after graduation, whether it be attending graduate school or entering the world of work.”

Yer Thao’s plans? Either to get a credential and return to Thailand or to get a master’s degree and then teach here in the United States in an area with a large Hmong population. “I, for one, certainly know how difficult and frustrating it was being in an American school and knowing zero English,” she says.

Felix Medina, too, will be moving on. After he receives his MA, expected in 2008, he hopes to enter a PhD program, either at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque or at UC Santa Cruz, “because it’s closer to my family.” He adds: “I haven’t had as much experience as my parents in hard labor, but I do know that if this MA/PhD thing doesn’t pan out, or if I can’t find a job working in a cubicle somewhere, that I can always fall back on working in the fields.”

Thanks in large part to EOP, that’s not very likely.

The Educational Opportunity Program is planning a number of events and activities to celebrate its birthday in the fall of 2009, along with the other EOP programs in the system. Former students and staff are encouraged to contact the office at eop@csuchico.edu or 530-898-6831 for specifics and information on how to get involved.

About the author
Stephen Metzger teaches in CSU, Chico’s English and journalism departments and taught in EOP’s Summer Bridge Program in the early 1980s. He is grateful for all he has learned from the hundreds of EOP students with whom he has worked over the years.