UCSB’s Educational Opportunity Program Pushes Underrepresented Students to Their Full Potential

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Photo courtesy of UCSB

Andrew Hernandez
Investigative Beat Reporter

The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) director, Aaron Jones, has approached his position with the same persistent disposition to better the lives of the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) student body that has stuck with him ever since his time as a UCSB undergraduate student more than 30 years ago. His attitude, efforts from EOP colleagues, and dozens of partnerships with campus offices all contribute to help the program engineer valuable initiatives that have impacted thousands of student’s lives. 

Prior to becoming the EOP director, Jones worked in a number of positions in Associated Students for 13 years before most recently resigning as assistant director for community affairs and student advocacy.

After two years, he is quick to credit the continual success of the program to the surrounding staff. In an interview with The Bottom Line, Jones stated that “one thing that I could do is make sure I didn’t get in the way of the experts who are the people doing this great work. To just try to make their lives easier so that they continue to do the work that they do.” EOP and its staff have dedicated themselves to serving first-generation and income-eligible students to guide them through the difficulties of college and find resources available on campus. 

EOP partners with many different organizations around campus to give its students a more enriching college experience. For example, UCSB’s Education Abroad Program often joins EOP in hosting events which help students navigate the process of studying abroad. The Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships has provided financial support toward several UCSB initiatives in the Promise Scholars and Scholar Retention Programs (SRP), while both the Colleges of Letters & Sciences and the College of Engineering also support EOP in providing targeted counseling. 

The program’s latest initiative seeks to focus efforts on first-years. Freshman students who post a GPA between 2.0 – 2.6 after their first quarter at UCSB are encouraged to to visit with a counselor in EOP. The visit is not intended to be punitive. Instead, Jones wants students to walk away from the check-in knowing they are accepted and welcomed at the university for a reason, while also helping them work on a personalized plan for their academic success. 

The university’s SRP program began in 2017, based on “the idea to provide incentives, opportunities, and resources for students who left the university, just shy of graduating, for whatever reason,” Jones explained. 

SRP offers these students a chance at reinstatement with all the necessary financial and personal support to finish up their remaining credits over the summer. Business & Financial Services, Summer Sessions, and Office of the Registrar are the other coordinating campus institutions who helped make the program what it is. Only 10 students were a part of that first class, which then grew to 50 students two years later. The program admittedly helps boost the graduation rates and the prestige of the university, but Jones made it clear that objectively, the program is ultimately designed to help students achieve their full potential. 

The Promise Scholars program is an established initiative at several educational institutions nationwide, and was adopted by EOP five years ago. This program’s iteration is for first generation students who are coming into the UC system and promises them an upfront, four years of financial aid pay so long as they see a counselor on a regular basis and go to certain programs or events to support their educational development. The initiative is in its fifth year and has seen several Promise Scholars be awarded the campus’ most prestigious honors like the Thomas More Storke Award and the Jeremy D. Friedman Memorial Award this past year. 

These decorated scholars are “just an example, not only of academic excellence, but also leadership on campus involvement in our community.” Jones said. 

It is fitting that EOP’s office is among the many inside the Student Resource Building, an inclusive space at UCSB that is about to celebrate its 12-year anniversary. The building is completely funded by student fees and was up for approval, after demands from student activists, in a 2001 campus-wide election that Jones was on campus for. Jones recalled student and fellow radio co-host, Ira Munn, pulling people into the voting booth with ten minutes to spare, an act that Jones says is likely the reason why the referendum passed by nine votes. 

It is because of moments such as those that Jones says, “This campus specifically speaking, wouldn’t look like or function the way it does today without the influence of student engagement and student agency.” 

The most famous instances of such activism on campus, from the taking over of North Hall by 12 Black students in 1968 to the hunger strikes by eight ChicanX/LatinX students in 1994, all speak to the power of collective action in small groups to gain support from people of all backgrounds. It is that power that Jones implores students to feel comfortable asserting by exercising their right to speak their own minds, as they too are those same people who can spark that change.