very day when John Gray goes to work, he walks by the spot where 31 years ago, he began the rest of his life.
“Honestly, it’s surreal,” said Gray, a Stockton University alumnus and former foster child who now serves as assistant dean of the School of Education at his alma mater.
Gray’s journey has come full circle, and he said he owes his success to the Educational Opportunity Fund, now in its 50th year.
Called EOF for short, the state-funded program offers financial and academic assistance to qualifying low-income students. To celebrate the 50th year of the program, Stockton hosted a celebration Thursday afternoon in the grand hall of its Campus Center. Several previous EOF participants and Stockton grads spoke, includ-
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Stockton President Harvey Kesselman said the EOF has been the primary vehicle to diversify the population at Stockton, and those who have gone through the program have found great success.
Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam was one of those students. He started in the EOF program in 1993.
He said he was excited to be chosen to help cut the ribbon when the Atlantic City campus opens this fall.
“All of us have a story that brings us full circle,” Gilliam said.
Gray said he lives that story every day.
A first-generation college student and a ward of the state, Gray enrolled at Stockton in 1986 at the behest of a school guidance counselor at his high school in Newark.
Gray, now 49, remembers watching the other students hug their families goodbye that first day of school and feeling alone.
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On the second floor of the J wing, where his office is now, is a sitting area with vibrant red chairs and large glass windows overlooking basketball courts below. In that same spot in the summer of 1986, Gray met his caseworker from the state, who handed him his last state payment and told him he was on his own.
“I sat here for a minute, cried,” Gray said, tearing up again. “And then I got up and went to the EOF office and said, ‘OK, what do I do now?’”
Gray said at that moment, he knew it was “sink or swim.”
Because he didn’t have any family to go home to, Gray spent weekends and holidays at Stockton. Over the summers, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve and completed training out of state for a place to stay.
“The best thing I received from EOF was what I had lacked when I got here,” Gray said: community and family.
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Zaiyana Jackson said she always knew she would attend college.
Gray, of Sicklerville, Camden County, worked for the Atlantic City School District as a teacher and administrator for 19 years before coming to Stockton two years ago.
“You are not just changing your life, you are literally changing the trajectory of your family tree,” Gray told the 135 EOF students in attendance Thursday, who were beginning their freshman year at Stockton this fall.
Paula Stewart Davis, dean of students for Atlantic Cape Community College and a 1972 EOF enrollee at Stockton, said EOF also stands for “extension of family.”
“This program changes lives, this program saves lives,” she said.