How a Remedial Academic Program Changed My Life

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I took this photo in 1989 when I was a junior at East Stroudsburg University.

I find it hard to believe that 30 years have passed since I first set foot on the campus of East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, PA.  I applied to the university in the spring of 1986 and planned to play football for the Warriors.  Unfortunately, I didn’t gain admission outright, probably because both my GPA and SAT scores were lacking.  Still, officials at the university were willing to give me a shot and recommended that I attend a remedial academic program called the Student Intensified Study Program (SISP).  In a clear terse letter they spelled out all the details; after graduating from high school I would be required to take remedial classes for 8 weeks during which time the directors of the program would monitor my grades.  If I made adequate progress, they would grant me admission to the school for the fall semester, however, if they felt I did not try hard enough or couldn’t academically keep up they would withdraw their offer.

I was nineteen years old when I received that letter and I certainly didn’t want to give up my summer, especially since I knew most of my friends were heading to the beach for senior week after graduation.  Nevertheless, after speaking to my mother I agreed to take the summer classes.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that decision would have a profound impact on the trajectory of my life.

On the first day of the program they corralled all of us, about 100 students, into a lecture hall, told us what would be expected of us and essentially put us on notice.  It was a privilege to be able to attend a university they said, and if we didn’t apply ourselves they would send us home.  In short, they expected us to go to class, work hard, attend tutoring sessions, and ask for help if we needed it.  It was also clear that they wouldn’t tolerate any foolishness because in their words, “a lot of people would love to be in your shoes and have a chance to go to college”.

Two people had key roles in the program.  Mr. Neal Simpson, an African American man, was a tall astute gentleman.  To me he always seemed calm, relaxed and reserved, and while he wasn’t a man of many words he knew how to get his point across.  Mr. Germain Francois, was a short energetic Haitian man.  He was much more animated and emphatic than Mr. Simpson and it was obvious that he viewed education as a vehicle to get ahead.  He had his PhD.  Looking back now I think he was the first man of color I knew to hold such a degree.  During that summer both men encouraged and supported me – they also pulled me in a room confronted me when they thought I was slacking.

All SISP students were assigned to a peer mentor.  My mentor was a tall fair skinned black woman named Danelle.  She was a junior so she knew the campus, knew which professors to take and which ones to avoid and other little things that weren’t included in the handbook.  Early on she gave me a key piece of advice. “If you really want to make it through college”, she said, “one of the most important things you will have to do is learn how to do is manage your time.”  I really relied on Danelle.  Even though she was busy she always found time to talk to me and point me in the right direction.

Academically, I took some type of remedial English course to increase my writing skills and prepare me for college level work.  I wrote my papers in small blue composition books because no one had a personal computer at that time.  Indeed, if you wanted to use a computer you had to go to a small computer lab in Rosenkranz Hall.  All documents were printed out on slow dot-matrix printers because laser printers were expensive and only kicked out about 8 pages per minute.

In addition to English I took remedial math and even that was difficult for me.  I couldn’t remember the formulas and made mistakes in the basic arithmetic.  It was a struggle, a terrible struggle and I was amazed when I learned that some of my classmates burned though the material with relative ease.

The SISP required that I read, write and do math every day, which to me seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.  I would have rather been tarred and feathered or be placed in a stockade than spend 8 weeks in the summer taking classes attending tutoring sessions and running off to mandatory SISP meetings in the afternoon.  I slowly got used to it, however, and my grades, study skills, and acumen increased.

I met students from all walks of life.  In between classes I met Italians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans from New York as well as Blacks, Whites, and Jewish folks from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Some of the students were affluent while others clearly came from working class families.  The one common denominator was that we all wanted  to show that we could do college level work and gain entrance to the university.  I should point out that ESU truly had a beautiful campus at that time with colorful flowers strategically placed in front of buildings and along side well manicured lawns.  The university also had a “quad”, a rectangular roughly football sized expanse of green grass located in the center of campus.  During the warmer months people lounged around, tossed frisbees, read textbooks or just plain hung out.  I think there were about 7 or 8 dorms on campus.  During the SISP I lived in Linden Hall, an all male dormitory with no amenities.

The food in the cafeteria was less than tasty (can you say powdered eggs?).  Still, there was plenty of it and in between pumping iron and eating in the cafe I quickly put on about 10 lbs in 8 weeks.  Sometimes they also had ice cream socials where you could have as much of the creamy stuff as you wanted for only 25 cents.

I successfully completed the program and in August, 1986, I received my admission letter in the mail!  A part of me still wanted to stay home and hangout with my friends and since I had a girlfriend at the time I didn’t want to leave her behind.  But I decided to go back; it was one of the best decisions I ever made.  My mother was happy, but I think she was concerned about how she was going to pay for my education.  Books were about $100 a semester and tuition, room and board and the meal plan came to about $7600 a year.  It was an exorbitant amount of money at the time especially since my mother only made about  $27,000 a year as a high school teacher.  Mom paid a portion of my education and I took out student loans.

In sum, the remedial classes I took the summer of 1986 changed the trajectory of my life. I gained admission to ESU, graduated with a degree in Media Communications and Technology, secured a good job and and continued to take classes.  But it all goes back to the Summer Intensified Study Program.  The administrators in the program believed in me and were willing to take a chance on me.  Yet more importantly, because of the SISP, I am now in a position to help other high students who may also need a little academic support, encouragement and guidance.

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