Feature Stories

They Graduated from Boot Camp: Meet the EOP Freshman Class

Four of the 107 students who were recently graduated from EOP boot camp.

Most students attend college to improve their lives. But many students in the Educational Opportunity Program attend college to improve the lives of their parents.

Consider, for instance, Elizabeth Oviedo, who spent the past six weeks in what is dubbed boot camp--the program’s summer enrichment program.  Her goal is to graduate from NJIT, land a good job and, most importantly, buy her parents a house.

“My parents have little money, and our neighborhood is not a great place,” says Elizabeth. “I’m close to my mother and to my father. I want them to live comfortably, so as soon as I graduate and have a good job I’ll buy them a house.”

Elizabeth joins 106 others who were graduated from boot camp this week--ensuring them a place in NJIT’s freshman class. The Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP, helps mostly poor minority students from cities make the transition from high school to college. Those accepted into EOP must attend boot camp the summer after their senior year. They come to camp usually a bit behind some of their suburban peers academically. And they often need a little push, or a little help, or a little motivation. The EOP staff gives them all of that and more. The students enter EOP with little sense of the demands of a rigorous university like NJIT. But during their years here, with guidance from EOP, they are transformed into scholars--who go on to work as engineers, managers, scientists, and architects.

Boot camp jump-starts that transformation by ridding them of bad habits -- procrastination, poor time management, lack of focus. During the six weeks of camp, the students live in an NJIT dorm and adhere to strict rules. Cell phones are banned, as are all electronics. The men cannot visit the women’s dorm floor. It’s tough love, as in the military: If one student breaks the rules, all are punished. But similar to the bonds that form among soldiers in military boot camp, the students form friendships that help them cope. Those friendships last throughout their time at NJIT, and sometimes, throughout their lives.

The academic aspect of boot camp is equally tough.  On a typical day, the students attend classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They study physics, math, English and architecture during the day, and have tutoring sessions from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. They study late into the night, and must leave their doors open so resident advisers can monitor their rooms. If they follow the rules and pass their classes, they earn their passport into NJIT. If they don’t, they are out.

Many EOP students come from immigrant backgrounds; most are the first in their families to attend college. Some come from single-parent households, or from broken families. And most come from families that struggle financially.  But what unites them is their eagerness to succeed and their yearning to help those they love best: their parents. 

Elizabeth’s parents, for example, were born abroad. They left the Dominican Republic so she and her siblings could attend American schools. The family now lives in an apartment in Newark.  Her father works in a factory; her mother is a part-time babysitter.  They did all they could to ensure that Elizabeth had a good education – she graduated from Newark Collegiate Academy -- and she appreciates the sacrifices they made for her. 

“I don’t know exactly what my father does at the factory but I know his job is dangerous because he works with fire,” says Elizabeth. “Yet every morning he gets up early and goes to work without a struggle.”

She’s determined to repay the favor by making her parents proud. She has an older brother and a half-sister but neither made it to college. Both siblings struggle now, she says, so all her parents’ hopes and dreams -- for their children to establish better lives in America -- are pinned on her. And nothing will make her happier than to fulfill her parents’ hopes.

“I can see myself dressed professionally and having a great job as a computer programmer,” says Elizabeth, who come fall will major in computer science at NJIT. “I know if I have a great job it will give my parents peace of mind.”

When Elizabeth was in high school, some students teased her about studying. And the young people in her neighborhood hung out on the streets.  But the siren call of street life fell deafly on her ears. She persevered, graduated with good grades and was accepted into EOP. And now that boot camp is over and the fall semester is near, Elizabeth is ready for college.

“I like a challenge...I’m not afraid of anything,” she says.

What Elizabeth says is not new to Tony Howell, the longtime director of EOP, the “father” of the EOP family. He’s been hearing the same thing for the last 20 years, and he knows it’s not just talk. 

“I can’t tell you how many EOP grads, successful professionals, have walked into my office to tell me that the first thing they did after they got their first jobs was to buy their parents a house,” says Howell, who has the military bearing of a Green Beret, which he was, but the heart of a kindly patriarch, which he is to the EOP students, who he refers to warmly as ‘my children.’ “That’s just kind of people they are. They have big hearts, and they don’t forget who got them where they are today.”

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Kelvin Siebeng, another boot camp graduate, understands Elizabeth’s thinking. He’s also eager to improve the lot of his family. He’s been in America only three years: He emigrated here from Ghana. His mother left Ghana in 2001 to establish a foothold in America, enough to get Kevin here. He stayed back home and lived with his grandmother. Life there wasn’t easy. His house lacked running water. He had to fetch water from the local well.

“I had to carry a heavy barrel on my head and walk home,” says Kelvin, with an easy smile whose brightness can illuminate a room. “Back in Ghana, resources were few. We were poor.  So I want to help my family live in a better, a more comfortable state. I’m definitely going to assist my family to the best of my ability.”

His mother works now as a bus driver for N.J. Transit, but she had an accident, a head-on collision, that left her out of work for a year. Kelvin has three siblings, and without money coming in the family struggled. They live in Irvington and Kelvin graduated from Newark Tech High School. Getting into EOP was, for him, a godsend. For along with boot camp, tutoring and counseling, EOP offers financial aid. 

Three weeks ago Kelvin’s grandmother, whom he considers a second mother, died of kidney failure. Her death left him bereft yet motivated.  At NJIT, he’ll major in biomedical engineering and his dream is to invent an artificial kidney – an invention that could have saved his grandmother.  “That’s my goal,” he says, “to help invent artificial organs. That will honor my grandmother’s memory.”

Kelvin went to a private school in Ghana. It was a school that brooked no nonsense: If you broke the rules, you were caned. Kelvin had his share of whacks, after which he learned to respect his teachers. Compared to that, the tough love doled out during boot camp, he says, was easy to absorb.

“My mother came to America by herself many years ago to make a good life for me,” Kelvin says. “Three years ago I came alone on a plane. My mother said to me, ‘You came here alone; you must succeed alone. Focus on your studies and don’t wander aimlessly in life.’ That’s precisely what I intend to do. But when I graduate I will also help make her life more comfortable.”

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Rayngi Elie was born in Haiti. He came to America with his parents when he was eight. His family lives in an apartment in Hillside; he graduated from Hillside High and just completed boot camp.  It was a hard six weeks for him. He studied a lot and slept little. Physics gave him a hard time – he got some 50s and 60s on quizzes – but he passed.

In the fall, Rayngi will major in civil engineering. When he was in high school, he took an AutoCAD class. He excelled in it and his teacher suggested that he major in civil engineering. And so he is.    

He, too, comes from a humble economic background: his father works the night shift at a paper company. And his mother is a nurse who holds down two jobs while also taking nursing classes at a community college. She wants to earn enough credits to be a registered nurse, says Rayngi.

And he, too, wants to help his parents. After all, his mother and father did everything they could to bring him to America.

“So the least I could do in return is to help them,” he says.

“I’ll try to provide for them in whatever way I can. If I can buy them a house after I graduate, I will definitely do it.”

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Sakari Ally also struggled to understand physics, a class that calls for an understanding of calculus, or at least pre-calculus. Yet most EOP students never had either class in high school. That’s one of the reasons they are in EOP, and one of the things boot camp does for them: gives them intensive math preparation for the fall.

Sakari, though, has an artistic sensibility and intends to major in industrial design. She describes herself as a problem solver who is creative and artistic. But she also likes to write and to read psychology and can also see herself working one day as a marriage counselor.

Her interest in the psychology of families might be born of her own experience. Her parents separated when she was in high school, and she fell into a funk during her junior year -- a critical year in terms of college planning and preparation.  Her family also had fallen upon hard economic times. Her father, a computer programmer, was unemployed for a while and her mother lost her marketing job. Luckily, her grandmother--who lives with Sakari, her little brother and her mother in Piscataway--helped the family get by with food stamps.  Her grandmother also helped to raise Sakari. She was born in America, but her mother was born in Barbados and her father in Guyana. The family lived in Brooklyn before moving to Piscataway, for safer streets and better schools. Sakari graduated from Piscataway High School.

During her senior year there, she visited an NJIT open house and met with the EOP staff, who said she qualified for EOP. She applied and was accepted. At first, Sakari didn’t see the purpose of boot camp. She’s a good student and wasn’t sure she needed it. But as camp progressed, its purpose became clear. The classes helped her improve her time management and her study techniques and showed her what she needed to focus on in the fall, when she officially enters NJIT as a freshman.

“Boot camp has prepared me for college,” she says. “I now know that I can handle the fall semester. That’s really cool.  I love the feel of NJIT’s campus and can see myself studying here and having fun.”

By Robert Florida