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Robert Okoro struggled financially to complete his Spring 2019 semester at Essex County College (ECC). However, the General Science major from Irvington still found himself a few credits short of graduation.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for that last Microbiology class when my prayers were suddenly answered with CCOG; what a relief,” said Robert, 25, who now plans to transfer to Rutgers University-Newark this fall. Robert, like nearly 300 other ECC students received unexpected financial support in the past month from the state Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) pilot program offering free tuition to students with an annual gross income of under $45,000.
Robert joined two dozen other ECC students on June 19 who had the unique opportunity to tell NJ Secretary of Higher Education Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, Higher Education Student Assistance Authority Executive Director David Socolow, and state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey their stories. Dr. Smith Ellis hosted a roundtable forum in the College’s Information Commons. “Community college education is so valuable, that the state must make a bold investment into the system,” Dr. Smith Ellis said in pitching expansion (including increasing the income threshold to $65,000) of CCOG. She added that so many people depend on New Jersey’s 19 community colleges to receive the skills and training necessary to compete in the workplace.
Tchakpala Awaki Hozou, a Biology, Pre-Medicine major living in Newark, said CCOG provided him with a tuition credit covering his completed Spring 2019 semester. “Now I can take the last two classes this summer I need to graduate and then transfer to Rutgers University-Newark,” said the 25-year-old. “If this wonderful assistance hadn’t come along, I would probably be working this summer and try to pay my tuition, if I could.”
Both Robert and Tchakpala said it was good to be able to relate their stories to officials such as Dr. Smith Ellis, Assemblywoman Jasey and ECC’s President, Dr. Anthony E. Munroe. When they talked about their disbelief receiving the unexpected financial support, many in the room (including College administrators, faculty, and staff along with community leaders) applauded them.
“Education is the pathway to your future,” the Assemblywoman, who chairs the state Assembly Higher Education Committee, told the students. “Thanks to this program, Essex County College students will be educated, prepared, and motivated young adults equipped with the tools to succeed, achieve great things and contribute to their communities. I am inspired by their passion for learning and their commitment to investing in their future. Their success will be our success.”
The original pilot official ends June 30. Dr. Smith Ellis is looking for state-wide support to continue with additional funding CCOG through the state’s next fiscal year, beginning July 1.
“Through innovative academic programming and access to the CCOG funds, many more Essex County College students were able to continue their journey in earning credentials of economic value that will better their lives, improve their communities, and ultimately move the state of New Jersey forward,” said Dr. Munroe.
Assemblywoman Jasey said she will bring the students’ stories to her fellow legislators this week as discussions continue on the budget. She urged all in attendance at the roundtable to contact their legislators for their support of CCOG. “Handwritten notes are important as they are very personal.”
Dr. Munroe added, raising the annual gross income limit for eligibility to $65,000 is very important to CCOG. “We will then have over 1,100 students who will be able to take advantage of this program. We strongly support the continuance of CCOG at a level of funding that will allow for the expansion of the program at all county colleges so that we can help more deserving people get a quality, affordable education at one of the outstanding NJ county colleges.”