First World New Paltz alumni honor legacy of opportunity at the College

When the organizers of the 2015 First World Reunion investigated the foundations of educational opportunity at SUNY New Paltz, some were surprised by the dynamic and unique history their search revealed.

“We realized in our research that in 1967 and 1968 there was a group of administrators who formalized the process of matriculating students of color at New Paltz,” said Onika Jervis ’93 (Biology) ‘05g (Educational Administration and Supervision), 2015 reunion advisor and Alumni Advisory Council member. “And we realized that we had never really acknowledged their work, and never said ‘thank you’ to them.”

This year, more than 200 First World Alumni from around the world returned home to campus to pay homage to the rich heritage and growing diversity at New Paltz. The reunion featured events including town hall discussions, dinner events and parties, a Voices of Unity Concert and a student/alumni basketball tournament.

The highlight of the weekend, however, was the “Trailblazer Reception,” at which the reunion committee joined alumni and College administrators in tribute to the architects of Project A, a precursor to the current Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) which provides academic and financial support to New York State residents with a high school diploma, or its equivalent, and who do not meet general admission criteria, but have the academic potential to earn a college degree.

Among those recognized were Purnell Kirkland, the first full-time director of Project A; John H. Jacobson, the interim president of SUNY New Paltz who supported and sanctioned the program; and Edward D. Bell, who helped develop and guide Project A in its infancy, and later served the College as director of the MRP and as associate dean of admissions.

“The College was a very different place in 1967 than it is today,” Bell said. “Project A was the earnest beginning of the diversity movement at SUNY New Paltz. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work in conjunction with right-minded colleagues whose goal was to provide access, opportunity and academic success for students of color.”

Additional tributes were dedicated to the original 20 Project A students and to beloved faculty who touched the lives of First World New Paltz alumni, including Dr. Marjorie Butler, first chair of the Black Studies Department; retiring professor of Black Studies Zelbert Moore; and Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, longstanding faculty member and leader in Black Studies and in the Scholars Mentorship Program.

“Many of the things we hold valuable and may take for granted—our newspapers, our community and student organizations, our events—were started by these Trailblazers, and we honor them for leaving us a legacy to build upon,” said Reunion committee member Anthony Winn ’92 (Business Administration).