College was the last thing on Jonathan Conyers’ mind. He grew up in the Bronx, the youngest of five children. His older brother, an army reservist stationed in Virginia, took custody of Conyers when he was 16 because his parents weren’t in a position to take care of him. Conyers says drug abuse and illnesses in his family — multiple sclerosis, COPD and diabetes — made his living environment untenable and prompted the move south.
In 2012, while he was attending his junior year of high school and working full-time, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. He quickly packed his bags and moved to New York City to live closer to her and his immediate family. He says he didn’t think he’d make it to college, let alone a prestigious research institution like Stony Brook University.
Everything changed when Conyers heard about Stony Brook’s Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit (EOP/AIM). Funded by New York State, augmented by University monies and private philanthropy, EOP/AIM at Stony Brook was founded in 1968.
It’s dedicated not only to providing access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students who possess the potential to succeed in college but whose academic background has not fully prepared them to pursue higher education successfully, but also to giving them the support they need to graduate. Students enrolled in the program are assigned to a counselor, who advises them throughout their college careers on personal matters, financial aid, academic success and career options. Students also have access to a computer lab, can receive tutoring in any subject and may attend workshops on topics like time management and study skills.
“If we are going to have an educated workforce, it is important for Stony Brook as a state university to make higher education attainable, not just by providing access and admission but also the support that students need to be successful,” says Cheryl Hamilton, assistant provost and director of EOP/AIM.
Even after he was accepted at Stony Brook, Conyers was nervous, but attending the Pre-Freshman Summer Academy put his fears on hold. A core element of EOP/AIM, the five-week boot camp focuses on math, writing and study skills with the aim of preparing students for the rigors of full-time university work. Talking with upperclassmen — many of whom had experiences similar to his own — and the support of the academy convinced Conyers he could succeed.
Still, once classes started he was taken aback by the challenging work the University was asking of him. As someone who had never taken science classes before, tackling college-level coursework was daunting. The EOP tutors wouldn’t let him fail, though. Whenever he came up with excuses — he was tired, he had a baby to care for, he was busy with work — the tutors were right there with him, countering every word. He says the EOP/AIM tutors would stay up late with him, helping him to master his math and science courses. He persevered.
Now a junior, Conyers is the father of a 3-year-old daughter named Emily. He’s majoring in health science and studying respiratory therapy, on track to graduate in 2017. Then, he hopes, it’s on to medical school.
“Growing up in the Bronx, you don’t know people who are growing up to be doctors — it’s not realistic,” he says. Now he’s working to change that. He’s a resident assistant and a tutor, giving back to the community that helped him navigate some of his most grueling classes.
Conyers also speaks to high school students in New York City about his experiences at Stony Brook in the hopes of convincing them to apply to college. “We try to get kids who think that college isn’t an option, and we try to help them transition into an EOP,” he says. “Through hard work, no matter what your situation, you can still be something great.”
Conyers credits his experience at Stony Brook with changing his life. “Without EOP, who knows what I’d be doing now,” he says. “It’s not just changing my life; it’s changing my daughter’s life. This can change the culture of my nieces and nephews. As this pattern continues, they’re creating better citizens and a better country. It’s a cascade. This is how we become a better world.”
EOP/AIM is just one of several programs at Stony Brook aimed at encouraging underrepresented or economically disadvantaged students to pursue degrees. The STEM Smart group in the Department of Technology and Society, for example, offers a variety of enrichment, support activities and services with the purpose of encouraging minority students and those from low-income families to study science, technology, engineering and math. STEM Smart’s foundational programs include the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), which serves students in middle and high schools in three underserved Long Island school districts, and the undergraduate Collegiate STEP (CSTEP) as well as the Stony Brook Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Stony Brook is the headquarters for the broader SUNY LSAMP program, which involves 16 community colleges, four-year colleges and university centers.
Each of these programs prepares students to succeed in STEM-related undergraduate programs and careers, providing career preparation workshops, tutoring services and financial support, depending on need and GPA.
— Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato