A close look at life-changing opportunities

Imagine this: you’re a young soon-to-be high school graduate. You’re looking forward to going to college next year—the stepping stone to your career of choice. But circumstances in life often make college an out of reach goal.

For so many people, this is a reality, and it’s not the only reason why 6.9 million New Yorkers have never had a college education. Many struggle with graduating high school, let alone college. It’s no secret that it’s tough to get a job without any kind of degree or certification.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2015 that the unemployment rate for U.S. citizens with a bachelor’s degree is 2.8%, while the rate for those with a high school diploma is 5.4%. It is higher still for workers who did not complete high school: 8%. Meanwhile, the average weekly earnings of a person with a bachelor’s degree more than doubles that of a person with less than a high school diploma.

SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) offer a second chance at a diploma, or a certification for adults who are now looking to access higher education or to move up in their career—and it’s all at no charge so long as you meet EOC’s criteria for admission.

EOCs welcome all kinds of students with open arms, as long as they fit three criteria: they must meet academic requirements (such as lack a high school diploma or college degree and/or marketable employment skills), meet financial criteria similar to that of SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program, and must have lived in New York State for at least one year.

Responding to the needs of the community

The average EOC enrollee is in their 30s, has an annual income of about $16,000, and is looking for a solution to either an educational or financial goal. All EOCs offer academic programs to achieve high school equivalency and preparation programs for higher education, but Lisa McKay, Director of SUNY’s University Center for Academic and Workforce Development (UCAWD), says that just as often, finding gainful employment as soon as possible is a more pressing need for EOC students.

Fortunately, these Centers respond to the needs of the respective communities in which they are based. Each EOC opens their doors, without judgement, to people who have survived and in many cases still continue to navigate a multitude of life challenges. Others who enroll in EOC programs simply want to learn and become certified in a trade, to support their families with more secure and higher paying jobs. 

Bolstering the efforts of every EOC is an Advanced Technology Training And Information Networking (ATTAIN) lab. ATTAIN promotes digital parity through access to a state-of-the-art technology lab that provides opportunities for training in academic and employability skills. Located in 36 locations around New York State, ATTAIN expands the reach of EOC.

According to McKay, about half of enrollees are unemployed at admission. Over 65% of enrollees are women, and about 80% are minority students. The number of enrollees whose native language is not English is growing, perhaps due to the fact that most EOCs offer English as a Second Language courses.

EOCs also offer several programs in general college, workforce and high school equivalency preparation, as well as trade certifications. Programs can run anywhere from a couple of weeks to the length of a fifteen-week semester to an entire year.

Students participate in an EOC employment services orientation inside a classroom.

The Capital District EOC

All EOCs run on a regular, semester basis. The Capital District EOC, with locations in Troy and Albany, however, uses a continuous enrollment process; instruction is very individualized, so students can enroll in and complete most programs at their own pace.

Also unique about the Capital District EOC is its programs. Troy is the only location to offer a building technology and welding program. Cosmetology students work on real clients, who this year paid for services not in money but in food donations to a local shelter. As seen in all of the EOCs statewide, this Center is deeply involved both in the community and in the lives of its students.

Capital District EOC Director Lucille Marion says many students have told her the EOC provided them with a life-changing experience, saying, "This was the first place I came where someone a) told me I was worth something, b) told me I could achieve something, and c) helped me to achieve something."

"It takes a special kind of person who has the knowledge and empathy to both teach students and help them through their own challenges. You need to care."

- Lucille Marion, executive director of the Capital District EOC

The programs are driven by the students’ needs and goals. Once students know what their goals are—to find employment in a certain field, to go to college—EOC advisors help them decide on a path and point out their options.

Every EOC understands that this is what is most important: to help students reach their goals and have a sense of achievement. Faculty and staff do more than just teach students skills. They keep students on track and keep them accountable.

Marion explains, "Students are pulled in so many directions and have so many challenges they have to balance, it’s hard to keep the education ball in the air."

Since the Capital District EOC recognizes that each individual student has different needs and goals, the faculty and staff get to know every student personally. It’s not always easy to juggle this level of involvement in students’ lives. It’s what McKay calls “heart work.”

Marion says, “It takes a special person to work here—they need both the head to do the job and the heart to do the job.”

Accessing a valuable resource

If you haven’t heard of EOCs, it’s not because they’re new—the Buffalo, Capital District, Brooklyn, and Manhattan centers are all celebrating 50 years of operation in 2016. These initial four centers are part of a larger network of 10 EOCs and two Counseling and Outreach Centers located throughout New York State. Stretching from Buffalo to Long Island, New York’s EOCs are a widely accessible resource and they want communities to know they’re here, and they’re here to help.

In 2015-16, EOCs statewide enrolled more than 10,000 students and close to 700 went on to post-secondary educational institutions. Each year, thousands complete EOC programs, are certified in a trade, or find employment through EOCs, and hundreds achieve high school equivalency or go on to receive additional education.

If you want to be one of the students who take hold of this opportunity for upward mobility in the workplace, believe an EOC can help you achieve your academic goals, or know someone who could benefit from these opportunities, visit your local EOC now. Advisors in locations all over the state are prepared to help you set your sights on the next step.

Published September 2016