Within a few weeks, the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Program at Saint Peter’s University lost three members of its staff, leaving EOF students lost and confused.
Director Anne Rosario, who has been a part of the Saint Peter’s family since 1971, passed away on Feb. 12, 2020. Students were notified the next day, and they were told about grief counseling options.
Then on Feb. 20students were notified through email about an urgent and mandatory EOF meeting that day to discuss future changes in the EOF department.
Students had no idea of the real change to come.
At that mass meeting, EOF students were told that both EOF counselors, Jose Lopez, Assistant Director and counselor, and Chelsea Rushing, junior and senior counselor, would be leaving Saint Peter’s.
Students felt blindsided by this news.
“I had my one-on-one with Chelsea, and she didn’t even hint that she was leaving. We talked about future plans and more. Before Chelsea left, she started a women’s empowerment club, and this is what’s puzzling,” said Adjeilyne Akrong, a junior EOF student.
Rushing left on Feb. 28, and Lopez left on Mar. 4. Originally, both planned to leave on the Feb. 28, but administration asked if one of them could stay a little longer.
Dejectedly, Akrong admits that the program was never the same anyway after her original counselors and advisors, Walvi De Jesus and Alexis Agosto, left Saint Peter’s.
“Mr. De Jesus and Ms. Agosto were vital to my college and EOF experience. Their departure was very sudden, and students received a very weird video from Mr. Walvi about him finding a new job,” she said. “We found out he was leaving the week he left.”
De Jesus and Agosto’s sudden departures were also felt by sophomore EOF student, Noemi Carranza, who was a freshman at the time.
“We didn’t get the TLC that the freshmen and sophomores before us received,” she said. “We never got that personal relationship.”
Freshmen EOF students must complete a summer academic program before the start of their first fall semester. According to Carranza, when her class came in, De Jesus and Agosto were assigned to them in the summer.
They left a short time after that, which is when Lopez and Rushing were brought in. By the time Carranza’s class began to get familiar with them, they too announced their departure by the end of Carranza’s fall semester as a sophomore.
“Lately it’s been people coming and leaving,” she said.
As an upperclassman, Akrong was optimistic about the new counselors, Lopez and Rushing.
“We thought things would go back to normal, and then boom they left too on a very short notice,” she explained.
For freshman EOF students, like Andrew Paredes, the sudden departures were even more confusing.
Paredes says that EOF is like a second home to him; it is a tight knit community and being a part of the EOF program helped him adjust to college, as well as make most of his friends.
“I would pop into my counselor Jose's office to say hello and stuff like that,” he said. “We lost valuable counselors, and my usual peer meetings haven't met in a while so everything is kind of just in the air right now and has been ever since they left.”
Students say that there has been no communication from the EOF department since their departures.
Akrong and Carranza credit Thea Dogan, the EOF program’s administrative assistant, as being the only constant keeping things together throughout all these changes.
For her part, Dogan emphasizes how important students are to the EOF program. Freshmen, in particular she said, need to be able to build a connection with their counselors. Instead, she says, students coming into the office now feel abandoned.
“Since they came back from spring break, the traffic in the office has completely ceased since the two counselors left. Since Monday, five students stopped by, and today is Thursday,” said Dogan. “Usually 40-50 students stop by a week, and they are in and out.”
Why do counselors and employees keep leaving Saint Peter’s?
One reason Dogan brings up is that the salary offered is not as high or competitive as other universities in New Jersey.
She points out, however, that Saint Peter’s offers the Tuition Reimbursement Program.
“The administration hires people that they think are going to stay because they have a bachelors, and you can get that masters free. That’s two years,” she explained. “After two years, they leave. That’s what happens because there’s no movement here, and then they don’t offer increases or give you different incentives to help you want to stay here.”
One employee who says he will not be leaving Saint Peter’s anytime soon is Tushar Trivedi, who is the director of the Academic Success Program (ASP) and who has now been appointed as the new director of EOF as well.
Trivedi says that this is normal movement always seen with young professionals. As he moves forward with the EOF program, for his part all he can do is motivate and collaborate with new employees to make them feel recognized, which will hopefully make them want to stay.
Trivedi’s office is a relatively small office on the third floor of Henneberry Hall. His office is stocked full of notebooks, calculators and anything else his ASP students may need. He is also the only one in the office, practically single-handedly running ASP, as he types up an introductory email to his new students of the EOF program.
When asked if he could adequately handle running ASP, EOF and also teach as an adjunct math professor, Trivedi pointed out that he would be sharing most of his ASP load with Michael Doody in CASE.
He also said that he can absolutely handle all his responsibilities.
“I had at one point over 120 ASP students, and I was taking care of them, counseling them, advising them and teaching them. I am very confident. As long as I get the support of the students and the staff and faculty at Saint Peter’s, we could still adequately service and support our EOF students.”
He even plans on not only doing the administrative work, but to take on advising and counseling as well.
Trivedi has a very optimistic view. He is very excited and passionate when he talks about his students, but he says that he also hears their concerns.
EOF, ASP & TRiO Combined?
He knows that EOF students have heard that the university plans to move EOF into the same office as ASP and TRiO, another reason Dogan says they stopped coming to the office, but he wants to reassure them that if the move is not in their best interest, it will not occur.
Despite rumors, ASP, EOF and TRiO are not being combined into one program, and all three will still be considered separate and distinct programs.
“The only thing the university is considering is to move all of these three programs into one common area if it’s feasible. That way all three programs can share resources,” Trivedi said.
He also pointed out that all three programs must be kept separate because of logistics: ASP is a Saint Peter’s homegrown program, EOF is a state program and TRiO is a federal program.
Government programs like EOF and TRiO require reports and data that must be reported to the government.
Trivedi calls this physical move “the best of both worlds,” but he admits that staff have been told to “optimize our resources, wherever we can consolidate we should,” by the administration because of the recent budget crisis Saint Peter’s has faced.
ASP, TRiO and EOF were advised and encouraged that this would be something they might like to look into.
“When we were thinking about how can we consolidate, how can we combine our resources, we said ASP, TRiO and EOF we do have a lot of overlapping objectives, so why can’t we have one big space where we combine resources,” Trivedi explained. “It’s not like we’re cutting back on EOF staff, we’re just trying to consolidate resources that are available on campus.”
New EOF counselors will still be hired, Trivedi hopes by the end of this semester, at the same rate of compensation as the former counselors.
Trivedi and Dogan, however, say that maintenance brought up some space and safety concerns when they looked at the office space.
Dogan also pointed out that EOF, ASP and TRiO have close to 100 students each who would now have to share one space.
This is particularly upsetting for EOF students who feel like EOF is their safe haven and who like having their own space, despite arguments that the third floor is more modern.
This consolidation will also impact the summer academic programs.
Instead of having three separate summer programs, Trivedi explains the change as “one combined summer academy for incoming EOF, ASP and TRiO students.”
The program will now be three weeks instead of four, and students will have the option of more class choices based on their major.
Trivedi says students can now earn more credits, besides the past history credits they were offered.
Dogan and current EOF students are not happy with the new changes, however. They point out the logistics of only being able to learn so much within three weeks, and staff being able to handle all those students at once.
As for now, Trivedi is willing to listen to students, and he welcomes any concerns and suggestions they may have during this difficult time of transition.
With the loss of the three members of the staff, the university had to take immediate steps to alleviate the situation, especially because Saint Peter’s EOF program is held accountable by the state, and students rely on that state funding.
He points out that the interest of the students come first, and he is still new to the program and learning all the rules and regulations:
“I just want to request the EOF community to be patient, to work with us, and to come up with ideas,” he said.“It was really tough, and we’re trying our best to keep everything going. I’m very hopeful and optimistic.”
Dogan and Trivedi continue to work to keep everything going by keeping the office functioning, recruiting new EOF students and working with the state. As the university currently looks to fill the position of the two former counselors, Dogan points out that neither her nor students have been asked for input.
At the same time, students caution the university not to make the same mistake: some of the potential candidates are current Saint Peter’s seniors with little to no experience.
The university also continues to lose valuable and important staff members like Victoria, the only TRiO counselor, who will be leaving the university on March 28.
“The EOF program is important because it helps students like me stay here, and it’s important to Saint Peter’s identity. The youth is the future,” said Carranza.