HEOP Works

An access program doesn't change its students' lives; it empowers them to do that themselves.

Meg Bernier Keniston '07, M'09

On a Monday evening in early October, the stresses of midterm exams, papers and projects are apparent on student faces across campus, but not in Carnegie 10, where nearly 60 students have gathered for a monthly meeting. Topics of discussion include academic planning, the upcoming class registration period, Mid-semester Break transportation schedules and budgeting. 

You might think, with topics like these, that the students are half listening, but not this group. They are smiling and taking notes. The upper-class students offer words of advice for the first-years. The first-years eagerly ask questions. You can feel a palpable energy even as they receive their final instructions: Write thank-you letters to St. Lawrence donors. The students dig for pens, excited to tell Laurentians how appreciative they are. Several ask, “Can I write more than one?” 

Meet St. Lawrence’s HEOP students.

Established in 1969, the statewide Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) is a partnership between New York State and its independent colleges that helps economically and educationally disadvantaged state residents go to college. St. Lawrence was one of the first in the state to offer HEOP, and today has nearly 70 students enrolled. Funding comes from a state Education Department grant, a St. Lawrence University grant, and federal and state financial aid. 

Each HEOP program provides selected students with testing, pre-first-year summer programs, counseling, tutoring, coursework and financial assistance. As more students apply and grant money gets more competitive, programs are trying to differentiate themselves from
the 57 others around the state. Many times in recent years, they have looked at
St. Lawrence’s as a model. 

Staff members spend most of their days, nights, weekends and summers making sure they are available when students need them while teaching them to trust each other, themselves, and their instincts to figure out and navigate life’s problems. The result? A tight-knit group of Laurentians who can’t get enough out of their four years at St. Lawrence.  

“We don’t mentor them because we want them to be good college students,” says Bill Short, St. Lawrence’s HEOP director. “We mentor them because we want them to be successful in life.” 

“HEOP is Family”

Oscar Acevedo ’19 will never forget sitting in his high school guidance counselor’s office the day he got the email from Short, telling him he had been accepted. 

“She said, ‘Oh my God, they want to take you!’” Oscar recalls. “We started jumping around. I ran around the school telling all of my teachers, ‘I got into my dream school!’” 

Oscar, who moved with his family from the Dominican Republic to New York City in 2010, had decided to attend a community college close to home. But when St. Lawrence said yes, he couldn’t say no.

“I want to inspire my little brother and make my family proud,” he says. “When they found out I got in to St. Lawrence, they said, ‘You are going to a really great college. You have the opportunity to be something.’ That’s when I realized how great an opportunity HEOP was giving me.”

Oscar’s first time on campus was for the HEOP Pre-First-Year Summer Session. The program crams a semester’s worth of work into five weeks in July to help the students prepare academically, mentally and emotionally for the stresses that will come with a college course load in a new, unfamiliar place. Short and Assistant Director Erin Colvin M’11 ensure that it embodies important elements of the Laurentian spirit: serving the community and building relationships with one another. 

“We are the only program in the state that has a community-based learning (CBL) component,” Colvin says. “We believe our students should commit to doing service projects early and often in their college careers. They enjoy it so much that outside of the service projects HEOP takes on throughout the year, many continue to do it through their courses and when they go back home.”

Colvin notes that St. Lawrence is also the only program in the state to coordinate lunch with more than 60 faculty and staff during the summer session. “We do it because we want to connect our students with this community immediately, because this will be their home for four years,” she says. 

Students say the jam-packed program can be difficult academically, but often brings out the best in themselves. “My summer program experience gave me confidence and helped build me up,” says Amanda Huebner-Lane ’17. “It challenged me to think critically and bigger than I had to in high school. It showed me I was ready for college-level courses.”

The summer program is also when the students learn they can rely on one another and why the upperclass group’s mantra is “HEOP is family.” It ends with a hike up Azure Mountain, which “symbolizes college, life and the struggles you go through in order to get to the top and reach your goals,” says Quevaughn “Q” Caruth ’16, a summer program mentor. “You might want to quit, give up and drop out, but you keep going” he says.” You can’t climb the mountain yourself. It takes the encouragement of others: People leading in front of you and the people behind you to support you when you’re tired. That’s what HEOP is.”  

Experience Everything with Everyone

Iram Amin ’19 heard many school representatives say “liberal arts education” during her college search, but it wasn’t until she met Short that she understood what it meant.

“There was a pumpkin in the middle of the table and he asked me to imagine each of us drawing what we saw,” she explains. “He said, ‘You see something different and I see something different. Neither of us will be able to draw the whole pumpkin. We both have to share our perspectives with each other to get the whole picture. It’s all about perspective. We all come with different perspectives and learn from each other.’”

Since arriving at St. Lawrence, Iram has discovered her interest in environmental issues. Her friends are teaching her to swim, bike and longboard. She has a thirst for getting involved, for learning and for making St. Lawrence better. This is what Short and Colvin hope every HEOP student gets out of St. Lawrence. “We want our students to do everything and experience everything,” Short says. 

“During the summer program, we break down every dollar of funding we receive and explain how it’s spent, so they understand why this is all possible and who makes it that way,” he adds. 

Armed with that knowledge, HEOP students don’t waste any time getting involved. Quevaughn, who plans to pursue law school after graduating in May, is a staff writer for The Hill News, a teaching assistant for a government course, treasurer of the government honorary Pi Sigma Alpha, and a member of the Black Student Union. He spent a semester on St. Lawrence’s program in Trinidad and Tobago. With just a semester left, he still wants to find new ways to engage with different people, groups and ideas on campus.

“Through being involved in a lot of things, I’ve discovered all the skills that I have and how I can use them to better myself and help other people,” he says.

Because HEOP students are so heavily involved across campus, other students quickly learn about the program’s existence. Many students bring their friends to HEOP workshops, community service activities, family dinners and other gatherings, making what could sometimes seem like an exclusive club one of the most inclusive groups on campus.

“Each year, there are about 30 or 40 other students who we call ‘Friends of the Family,’” Colvin explains. “We don’t turn people away. Everyone is welcome.”

Lifelong Mentors

During the 2015 summer program,
St. Lawrence and Clarkson HEOP students spent an afternoon with successful HEOP alumni who shared their stories, offered advice and answered questions. Crystal Vendrell ’12, special events coordinator at the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties in Burlington, Vermont, drove six hours round-trip to take part.

“Bill and Erin asked me if I’d come and of course I said yes,” Vendrell says. “I’ll drop anything to help them and help HEOP.”

That’s the response HEOP alumni often give if Short or Colvin reaches out. From student and alumni gatherings in New York City, to events and panels on campus, the alumni come running. That’s because the relationships students develop with HEOP staff may be the most powerful attribute of St. Lawrence’s program. 

“What makes the St. Lawrence HEOP staff unique is the combination of professionalism and heart,” says Travis Proulx ’04. “I have communicated with a lot of universities and HEOP programs, and I have rarely seen a staff that is so professional and demands as much from its students, yet at the same time, is so willing to give such a huge piece of themselves to their program.”

In high school, the idea of a college degree was foreign to Proulx. A North Country native, he didn’t know what a college degree would do for him. 

“On paper, I wasn’t someone who would succeed. I didn’t fit the mold of what America thinks is a typical college student,” he says. “But HEOP made it possible. HEOP is why I went to college.”

Despite early struggles, Proulx uncovered the leader within himself at St. Lawrence, becoming, among other roles, president of Thelmo. After St. Lawrence, he received a master’s degree from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has worked in strategic communications for state senators and the State Senate, the Cuomo Administration and now Environmental Advocates of New York. 

Proulx rarely tells a St. Lawrence story that doesn’t mention Short, who he says is like a father figure for him and many other HEOPers.

“During the winter of my first semester, I had a headlight go out in my car,” Proulx explains. “In what became a typical response from Bill, he took me to the store to ensure I bought the right replacement. Then he taught me how to install it.”

Short and Colvin are known best for their honest and frank approach with students. They don’t sugarcoat anything when it comes to the realities of college and life. Their role is not to solve students’ problems for them. They are there to guide them and believe in them. 

When asked about the influence the staff has on their students, Short flips the script. “We are creating an opportunity and a place where students are going to thrive academically and personally, but we are not the reason they are successful,” he says. “Our student and alumni success stories are completely self-made.”

Calling All HEOP Students, Alumni & Friends!

The St. Lawrence HEOP program is getting ready to celebrate HEOP’s 50th anniversary and a reunion is in the works for 2018. Stay up to date or get involved in organizing it by joining the SLU HEOP and FriendsFacebook group.

North Country native Amanda Huebner-Lane '17 says HEOP's summer program "helped build me up."
Bubaccar Fofana '18 (left) has been sharing his love of rowing by recruiting his HEOP friends to the men's crew team. After spending the summer learning how to swim, Muhammad Tunkara '18 (right) joined the squad, too.