The Power of HEOP

By Charles McKenzie, September 4, 2021
Landmark program celebrates 50th anniversary.

WHEN THE ARTHUR O. EVE HIGHER EDUCATION Opportunity Program (HEOP) began 50 years ago, it sought not just to bring more students to New York State colleges, but also to infuse those campuses with the richness of experiences and perspectives these future scholars and professionals would bring. 

The students’ circumstances were as diverse as the students themselves, and not just in terms of race, class, and gender—though those were huge factors. Some had challenging home lives or came from communities fighting poverty. Others came from the middle class families of entrepreneurs. Many were all-star students who just needed some extra financial support. What they had in common was the desire and the resilience to walk through the doors that can be opened with a college education.

“We have a number of students who not only come to IC and earn their degrees but are also doing really important things in terms of adding to the research being done on campus, to serving in the local community.”

Lynn Cortese, director, Ithaca College Office of Access, Opportunity, and Achievement

Stemming directly from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the program represented a reimagination, or perhaps an awakening, of both how the high school students saw themselves and of the colleges’ assumptions about what prospective students looked like. 


The 50th anniversary of HEOP at Ithaca College was celebrated at IC’s last Alumni Weekend before the coronavirus pandemic. 

While the program was created by the state legislature in 1969, Ithaca College was among the inaugural independent colleges and universities to offer it. The college allocated money to the program and relied on funds from New York State to cover the rest, admitting a few students through the program each year. 

A male student in graduation regalia standing next to a woman

Omar Stoute ‘18 at his graduation (Photo submitted)

Fast-forward to the 2019 celebration in the James J. Whalen Center for Music, which included hundreds of students, HEOP alumni, staff, and faculty (both past and current). They shared stories about the founding of the program, the struggles along the way, and how it helped bring hope and an academic and economic catalyst to students and their families, even for generations. All were proud of what they had accomplished at IC, where faculty and staff have long been thankful for the contributions and diversity the program has brought to its halls and legacy.

Many members pointed to financial or academic support, but others recalled the social aspect, the power of seeing friendly faces and supportive staff who greeted them as they stepped foot on a college campus, many for the first time. They were walking into a world of possibility, one that may have seemed impossible years or even months before. While program administrators did everything they could to find those students and prepare them, it was ultimately the talent and tenacity of the students themselves that enabled them to set down roots and bloom. 

For example, former peer mentor Christopher Miree ’13 said HEOP afforded him opportunities to explore more, ultimately yielding his two biggest passions: “By breaking down financial barriers, HEOP allowed me one, to focus on my studies and two, to really get involved on and off campus, working at the YMCA and doing comedy.” 

After graduation, Miree moved to the Los Angeles area, where he still works as an executive director for a YMCA and manages a talent agency for college comedians. 


All 16 or so yearly incoming HEOP students at IC attend a five-week orientation program in the summer before classes begin. It not only teaches them about Ithaca College, like most orientation programs, but it also further supports the students’ academic success by offering learning tools and strengthening their academic background. Essentially, it’s a preview of what college-level work looks like and how to adapt to the new challenges college will present.

Christina Lachman ’20 noted the intensity of the five-week program. “But it was all worth it because it made me a stronger student in the fall. It ingrained in us how much work would be required to succeed and showed us what our classes would be like.” 

She really valued how HEOP familiarized her with the many resources in place to help all IC students, not just HEOP students, and the time-management skills she learned were invaluable. Summer programming went from 7 a.m. until lights-out. 

“ ‘...we’re all in this together.’ Everyone in there is like a family, and having each other to rely on makes it better.” 

Odalys Altamirano ’21

“There were back-to-back classes, work, study hours, and it just kept us going the entire day,” she recalled. “If they didn’t have it as structured as that, I feel some people would fall through the cracks because a lot of people didn’t really know how to prepare for college.” 

Socially, the summer program also gives them an opportunity to create a support network of friends, staff, and faculty. For first-year students whose family members attended college, advice is only a text away. Many HEOP students have to find a different path. 

“Dealing with the stress sometimes is a lot, and I don’t really have anyone at home who can help me with this,” said Odalys Altamirano ’21. “But just going to the office and sitting with other students that I know are first-gen and struggling eases that heavy weight on my shoulders, like, ‘Ok, we’re all in this together.’ Everyone in there is like a family, and having each other to rely on makes it better.” 

Omar Stoute ’18 agrees that HEOP helped him transition to college. 

“There’s a learning curve from high school behavior to college behavior,” recalled Stoute, now IC’s deputy Title IX coordinator. “As a first-gen student, I didn’t personally have anyone else to go to to help walk me through that: how to study, how to go to office hours, how to negotiate difficult conversations, or just how to deal with the culture shock.” 

HEOP Students on the steps by Textor

Students participate in the orientation program in the ‘90s. (Photo submitted)

Through counselors and other resources, the program’s support continues throughout the first year and until graduation. Students can get help with academic work, financial aid, career planning, and even personal concerns and setbacks. All first-year students meet weekly with one or more tutors and with a program counselor. After that, students may consult the academic support staff as needed and attend regular meetings in order to strengthen academic performance. 

The results of the program are immeasurable, alumni say. Most have paved the way for their children and other family members to go to college, some even to their alma mater. 

Nick Wharton, the former director of IC’s HEOP, said it’s not so much about helping students as getting them what they deserve, what they have earned. 

The support, whether it was from faculty, staff, peers or even campus speakers serves to help the students weather and even erode institutional barriers. “Overcoming institutional racism was a constant climate dynamic that required administrative advocacy and negotiation to create a more inclusive campus community for minority students to thrive. And thrive they did,” Wharton said, pointing to higher graduation rates for students in the program compared to the student body at large. 

And the contributions of HEOP students for 50 years is what has shaped IC’s legacy and helped the college’s continuing growth into a more diverse and welcoming environment. 

Who Qualifies?

Students must have a high school diploma or equivalent GED, but there is no minimum SAT score or GPA requirement to qualify for HEOP. Applicants can even choose to apply without test scores, as IC has been “test optional” since 2012. The applicant’s household income must fall within a New York State– mandated range, although there are some exceptions for students who are wards of the court, in the foster care system, or receiving other government aid. Tuition and other costs are paid for in a variety of ways: IC contributes money directly to student aid, and HEOP and its activities are also supported in whole or in part by the New York State Education Department. Other aid comes through need-based state and federal programs, New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, and federal aid programs such as Pell grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), Stafford loans, and work-study. 

“Our students come to IC not only to earn their degrees but also to do really important things like conducting research on campus and serving in the local community,” said Lynn Cortese, director of IC’s Office of Access, Opportunity, and Achievement and HEOP. “They really take full advantage of the opportunities that are given to them. They then are able to give back to their communities and to communities throughout the state. That’s really important, and we want to continue to be on the forefront of that, especially as demographics in the state change.”