EOP students talk in a group

Spring 2020 — Janet Nishihara grew up driving tractors and moving sprinkler pipes on her family’s farm eight miles outside a small rural town in Eastern Oregon. As a first-generation Japanese American college student, she found success and a home at Oregon State University.

Now she helps underrepresented students navigate their journey to success as director of Oregon State’s Educational Opportunities Program (EOP). “I feel exceptionally lucky to have been able to participate in the life of the university, supporting students and making friends along the way,” Nishihara says.

Many students feel a little lost at college. That can be especially true for students without a roadmap to follow.

For 50 years, students of color and low-income, first-generation, undocumented and other underrepresented students have benefitted from EOP. The program supports students along their educational path and works to remove institutional barriers that create achievement gaps.

EOP is an intensive commitment to make Oregon State more welcoming through one-on-one academic counseling, small course sections, financial aid and experiential learning. “The relationships we have with students are personal,” Nishihara says.

Students in the program meet frequently with an academic counselor to build a strong and trusting relationship that gives them a solid understanding of the support structure and tools available to help them navigate their way. EOP courses are taught by instructors with training to assist a wide variety of learners.

EOP aims to eliminate gaps in retention and graduation rates. At Oregon State, EOP students are about 11% more likely to stay in college and are graduating at higher rates than their peers from similar backgrounds. EOP students are academically strong. Between 25%-30% of EOP students make honor roll, and several recent graduates have completed their studies earning a 4.0 GPA. Participation is voluntary, and approximately 400 students are being served at any time.

And thousands of EOP graduates now work in careers benefiting their communities through public service. They are equally successful in traditional professional fields. Alumni say the EOP supported them and made their degrees possible.

EOP faculty advocated for the Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program and baccalaureate core requirement, the creation of the ethnic studies department and new student and faculty groups. They facilitate Black Minds Matter conversations and present new research on issues to improve student support and success. They advance diversity issues to the Faculty Senate and university administration. This work intersects with many student success initiatives, including the College Assistance Migrant Program, Diversity & Cultural Engagement and the Academic Success Center.

With the cost of higher education increasing, the greatest limitation is financial constraints.  There isn’t enough financial aid and scholarships to help students in need. “We talk with students all the time who do not have enough money to come back next term,” says Nishihara. “That used to mean they needed a few hundred dollars. Nowadays, they may be short $5,000.”

Nishihara hopes to reach more students and replicate the success to other underrepresented groups on campus. “We know what works,” she says. “We would like to see more personal outreach to diverse populations at Oregon State.”

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