The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of The Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at Barnard and HEOP Program Director Nikki Youngblood Giles is planning to commemorate the occasion with special activities this fall. Giles oversees this entire operation designed to shepherd her students through college and into adulthood. The program is academically rigorous: motivated high-school seniors who are chosen meet the formal academic requirements set by the state (including a maximum score of 620 on the critical reading section of the SAT), and they meet certain financial requirements that make them eligible for the generous grants that the state and the College provide.

                  The students, often from under-resourced schools, begin with total immersion in college-level work the summer before their first year. They have six weeks to prepare for their new academic environment. They take courses in biology, chemistry, calculus, statistics, psychology, English literature, and writing four days a week. “I had never taken a chemistry class before,” recalls Vanity David, a HEOP Scholar from East Harlem. “I had never taken a statistics course.”

                  The foundation for her eventual success at Barnard was first laid out during those weeks. “It was like the intensity of finals week, except it lasted for six weeks. When the semester finally began, I found regular classes to be much easier than the summer session.” During that summer, David came to know the staff of counselors who would be there to offer guidance through the next few years. “Everyone at the HEOP office is very friendly and approachable, and it’s great to have a core of people you know when classes begin.” David, 22, is a senior graduating with a major in women’s studies. Since arriving at the College, she has volunteered as an aide at nursery schools and applied to graduate schools for early childhood education.

                  For Nana Ankamah, 19, a sophomore from Freeport, Long Island, the summer program was “the beginning of a sisterhood.” It also taught her some valuable lessons on time management and balancing work, family, and socializing. “Your first year, you’re very ambitious, and you want to do too much,” says Ankamah, who recently switched from a pre-law to an economics major, but is still “testing the waters.” This year, she’s scaled back her extracurricular activities to serving on the planning committee of the upcoming Women’s Leadership Retreat, where she’ll engage in exercises to encourage women to seek leadership positions. She sings in the Columbia University Gospel Choir and is a Project HEALTH volunteer, helping to link low-income families to needed health and social services. She intends to go on to law or other graduate school studies.

                  Older students in the program mentor the incoming first-years, and a series of workshops teaches important life and study skills. The program lends out free textbooks and laptops to students, and provides tutors for the students who need them. The graduation rate for HEOP Scholars of 88.2 percent very narrowly lags behind the general graduation rate of 89.3 percent. Illustrious graduates include the novelist Edwidge Danticat ’90 and CBS Evening News producer Ingrid Ciprian- Matthews ’81. Ruo Hong Zhai ’03 recently earned a DDS while Isabel Araujo ’10 received early acceptance to Columbia Law School. Twenty-eight scholars entered the program two years ago.

                  “Education is the great equalizer,” says Giles, “Our students believe that Barnard is the place to get a great education and prepare to do well in life.”

-by Wesley Yang, photograph by Kate Ryan