Hear the stories, dreams and aspirations of our EOP students.
By Melanie Johnson
The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) proved to be a saving grace for Leticia Guzman Scott.
Guzman Scott, who was an average student as a teen, heard about EOP when she was in high school. Her sister had struggled in college and learned about EOP too late, so when it was Guzman Scott’s turn to apply, her sister made sure she didn’t miss the opportunity. Now the Cal Poly Pomona alumna (’90, business administration; ’94, MBA) is the executive director of Student Support & Equity Programs, which oversees EOP.
“If it wasn’t for EOP, I wouldn’t be here with a master’s degree,” she says. “Being first generation and low income, you always wonder if you are good enough to be here. If it wasn’t for the safety net and support of EOP, I would not have been here.”
The Educational Opportunity Program, which marks its 48th year, was born out of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s as part of a demand for greater access and equity in higher education. The student-directed campaign led to the passage of Senate Bill 1072 (the Harmer Bill) to establish the program in 1969. Today, EOP exists at all 23 of the CSU campuses, providing support services and grants for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.
For incoming freshman and transfer students, EOP offers academic advising, tutoring and programs designed to give them an early introduction to university life through Summer Bridge and Transfer Bridge.
There are about 2,000 EOP students at Cal Poly Pomona, including 450 new enrollees this year. To join, students complete a separate application and provide two letters of recommendation. Space in the program is limited.
“EOP looks beyond just grades,” Guzman Scott says. “It also looks at the motivation of students, at their potential.”
Blazing a New Path
Growing up the second of seven children meant shared bedrooms, hand-me-down clothing and cramped car rides for MILCA RAMOS.
It also forged tight-knit familial bonds and a desire to help make life easier for her parents and younger siblings. She is the daughter of a grocery store worker father with an elementary school education and a homemaker mother who made it to middle school before she had to drop out to help support her family. Ramos is the first in her family to
go to college, and she is inspiring her younger siblings to follow suit.
“It was tough, but it was a good experience,” she says of her upbringing. “You’re just trying to make it. The most important thing is having food on the table.”
Ramos, a junior majoring in hospitality management, planned to get a job after graduating from Bell Gardens High School, but a school counselor suggested that she apply to Cal Poly Pomona.
EOP’s five-week Summer Bridge program was Ramos’ introduction to the university. Without the support of EOP, she likely would have dropped out of school.
“I would have tried and said, ‘I can’t do it,’ ” she says. “When I came out here, I didn’t feel like I belonged. I was out of my comfort zone. Being able to talk to people, my advisors, and ask them where to go and what to do helped a lot. They know the struggles because they’ve been there.”
Now in her third year at Cal Poly Pomona, Ramos aspires to work in the accounting department for a hotel chain or hospitality company and is planning to pursue a master’s in accounting.
She is a role model to her younger siblings, mentoring a sister in high school who is taking Advanced Placement courses and planning to go to college.
“If I were at home working, I’d be miserable,” she says. “College helps you get out of your shell and see your potential.”
Reviving a Deferred Dream
In high school, CATHERINE “CAT” TEAGUE dreamed of attending UC Berkeley but was unfamiliar with financial aid. Considering the thousands of dollars it would cost in tuition and other expenses, she crossed college off her list.
Teague grew up in the foster care system in Southern California and moved around a lot. She didn’t have a stable family supporting her college dreams.
“When I was in high school, everybody just assumed I would go to college, but no one helped me apply,” says the sociology senior. “I just slipped through the cracks. I counted myself out.”
About a year after she graduated from high school, a boyfriend who was enrolled at College of the Desert suggested that Teague also sign up for classes. “Once I started taking classes, I fell in love with academia,” she says.
When it was time to transfer, she decided on Cal Poly Pomona and simultaneously enrolled in EOP and Renaissance Scholars, which offers academic and financial support to former foster youth.
Teague calls Renaissance Scholars her “heart family” and serves as a peer mentor. In addition to receiving mentoring, advising and tutoring, connecting with other firstgeneration students also has been invaluable.
“Being around other people like you normalizes that it’s OK that you’re the first to go to college,” she says. “The support from the programs help you catch up on what you might not know. You can ask questions and know you’re not going to be judged.”
Gaining a Competitive Edge
FOR MARIO MENDOZA, who grew up as the youngest of four siblings, the letter “C” in the alphabet stood for competition.
That competitive environment helped the international business junior set the bar high early on, he says. He knew he was destined for college.
“We never saw it as a choice,” says the Montclair native. “Growing up, my siblings and I always wanted to compete to see who was the smartest. As we got older, we learned it is not about competing because we all have a different route. The goal is to be happy.”
The iPoly High School graduate considered going to one of the UC campuses but chose Cal Poly Pomona because of the cost savings and because he had taken some college courses as an iPoly student.
On the application, he saw a box for EOP and checked it. He asked his sister, who graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in 2015, about EOP. She told him only that it was “a good program.”
It was a fortunate choice. Mendoza says the program connected him to services and other incoming students, and it helped him navigate the complexities of financial aid.
Staff advisors also assisted him with changing his major.
“I was a biology major coming in, so they helped me switch to international business,” he says, adding that he is thinking of changing again to philosophy, political science or marketing management. Mendoza says he has always seen himself in a leadership role and is thinking of going into politics.
EOP has helped him to stay on track for graduation, even with the change in majors. His experiences also have taught him a valuable lesson about competition: The only person he has to battle is himself.
“When I look at where my parents came from, how far they’ve come and how they’ve always hoped for us to do better, I’ve learned that I always want to satisfy myself,” he says. “If I satisfy myself, I satisfy them.”
Finding a Strong Voice
MICHELLE PEREZ wasn’t always the outspoken aspiring community advocate she is today.
Growing up, the San Fernando Valley native was the quiet type. However, between a high school project on gentrification on which she earned an A and her introduction to Cal Poly Pomona through EOP, the sophomore has learned the importance of making her voice heard.
Perez learned about EOP from an aunt who was a college advisor. When she tried to ask her aunt more detailed questions, Perez was told to do her own research. By the time she arrived at EOP orientation, she knew all about the program’s history and purpose. When orientation staff quizzed the crowd, Perez threw up her hand to answer questions. Her mother, who attended the session with her, was surprised.
“My mother had never seen me in that light,” she says. “I am a shy person, but now that I am in college, I try to use my voice.”
EOP has helped Perez gain the confidence to pursue her dream. She hopes to become an attorney and formulate public policy that will benefit communities in need. She serves as academic chair on the executive board of Hermanas Unidas de Cal Poly Pomona, a Latina empowerment organization focused on community service, social networking and academics, and she credits EOP with giving her the courage to take on a leadership role.
“EOP influenced me to be a liaison to communities I am a part of,” she says. “EOP taught me excellent time management strategies, how to set academic goals and how to ask questions.”
Perez, an urban and regional planning student, says she is making the most of the services offered by EOP and other programs. She works as a Student Success ambassadorin the College of Environmental Design and plans to work as a tutor for Upward Bound, a program that helps low-income and underrepresented students get into college.
“Growing up, I didn’t have all of the opportunities, but I have tried to take advantage of them as soon I got here.
Discovering New Possibilities
Several nights a week, JONATHAN AGUILERA can be found on campus from 9:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. working as a student assistant for the University Police Department.
He trains new student hires on the department’s procedures and goes out with them on patrol around the residential suites and halls. The junior, who is majoring in computer information systems, manages a full load of classes around his work schedule.
For the Pomona native, keeping busy is a big part of who he is, largely due to his mother. Although Aguilera’s mother didn’t attend college, she was active at her four children’s schools and emphasized the value of hard work and doing the right thing.
“She knew that education could open up doors and possibilities, so she pushed us to get good grades and to be
involved in the community,” Aguilera adds. “She kept us busy and kept us from doing anything wrong.”
In high school, Aguilera participated in the Police Explorer program with the Pomona Police Department. He also joined Uncommon Good, a Claremont-based organization that helps underprivileged children prepare for college. While helping him apply to Cal Poly Pomona, the director at Uncommon Good advised Aguilera to also
apply for EOP.
During Summer Bridge, Aguilera lived on campus for three weeks and took his first college class EWS 140 a four-unit ethnic and women’s studies course on Chicano history and social justice.
“I thought the college was pretty big then,” he says, “but now that I work here, it feels pretty small.”
That Summer Bridge experience helped Aguilera make some connections and friends.
EOP also helped him declare a major, stay on the right path and receive math tutoring.
“The importance of EOP is helping first-generation college students who have no one in the family to introduce them to college, to help students get acclimated,” he says. “They help us make connections with the campus community and explain what’s happening. They keep us up to speed.”
EOP relies on private donations for scholarships, mentoring initiatives and Summer Bridge. Established in 1969, the program serves low-income, first-generation students who demonstrate the motivation and potential to succeed in college. About 93 percent of freshmen return for their sophomore year, compared to the university average of about 80 percent for first-time freshmen.