California State University, Long Beach
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White’s Influence On EOP

Published: November 1, 2016

Before there was the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), there was Dr. Joseph White.

And, in great part, because of White, there is EOP.

The program, which provides access to historically low-income and first-generation college students and in a holistic environment, advocates for students’ success and graduation by promoting academic excellence and personal development through comprehensive support services and retention programs.

The program’s creation was not inevitable but came to be as a result of the efforts of many, but maybe most of all White, a professor on campus in the 1960s.

“When I first raised the questions (about diversity) here at Long Beach State, people said that change would occur naturally. We didn’t need a program,” said White, “but, it didn’t change. Every year was the same. So, I figured something had to happen and that it would take some programmatic leadership to make the change take place. And, I think the Watts Riots pushed me over the hump.”

From 1962-66, there were less than 50 black students on the CSULB campus and 35 of those were athletes, remembered White, who ran into his own barriers in higher education after graduating from San Francisco State and before being accepted into graduate school at Michigan State in 1958.

“That left about 15 just straight-out students,” he said. “To anyone who could count and walk up to the upper part of this campus, we were like (author Ralph) Ellison’s Invisible Man. We were not present, and you didn’t have to be a mathematician to figure that out. If you had eyes, you could see that.”

“The first thing that struck me was that I was the only person of color in the whole class,” said Fernando Hernandez, a member of the initial group of EOP students. “I was all by myself, and I wandered around here for a few weeks without ever seeing a person of color.”

White, the second black tenure-track faculty member hired at CSULB back in 1962 and the only black tenured psychologist in all of California at the time, wasn’t quite sure how to address the about lack of diversity. Still, he sensed an urgent need for change.

“But, I had no idea how to bring it about,” he said.

The campus needed a vehicle to admit the students whom he thought had the potential to do college work, but couldn’t meet the admission standards. White knew there was a group of kids out there, 11th- and 12th-graders—non-athletes—who were just beginning to peak academically, but they didn’t do well as freshman and sophomores in high school so their GPAs were too low to quality for college entrance.

“They obviously had the ability from my frame of reference,” he said. “That was the group I looked for.” That was the group he recruited.

For help, he went to the then Dean of Students George Demos and mentioned he had heard there was some type of special admissions for athletes that would allow the university to admit up to 2 percent of those who didn’t meet the regular admissions standards. White figured he could use part of that 2 percent special admit allowance to get African-American and Hispanic students enrolled.

“I had a good relationship with Dr. Demos, and he trusted my word,” said White, “and he gave me those 67 special admission slots.”

The lack of non-white students on campus did not go unnoticed by Demos, who noted that, of the 10,000 students, virtually all were white.

“We had to do something to bring minorities to our campus,” he said, noting that many of them weren’t even applying. “Even though many of them qualified, they didn’t feel comfortable here. There weren’t enough minorities on the campus. So, we had to get something moving.”

Demos acknowledged that White, who worked under him, was a key figure in bringing worthy students to campus who may not have qualified normally, but had the potential to be successful.

“EOP students did surprisingly well once they got here,” said Demos, “and made this campus more open to minorities, not just blacks, but Hispanics, Asians and other students as well. The EOP program was amazingly successful and making this a multi-national kind of ethnic campus where we had all kinds of people, which is part of the education of students.”

Demos praised White’s uncanny ability to select just the right kids to target.

“Joe White was a master at it,” said Demos. “He had an instinct. He was a psychologist, and he could talk to people and figure out a lot about whether they could make it or not. He was very good at that, and very successful.”

White’s process for getting students into college was simple. He established good relationships with the high school counselors and asked prospective students for three letters of recommendation.

“What I was looking for was some evidence of talent, especially during the junior and senior years,” said White. “I also tried to ask myself what these kids were doing with their time. I also wanted to know that at 17 and 18 years of age, did they want to go to college?”

Initially, 67 students came to campus under the Educational Opportunity Program, admitted under that 2 percent rule which had been strictly used for athletes to that point. That was the first cohort that came in and it was called Educational Opportunity because around the country a few programs were popping up and that was the name they used.

“So, I just named it that,” said White. “Through this program, I was trying to widen the life opportunities for underserved black and Chicano students. I wanted these young people to have the chance to participate in a wider range of opportunities. If they didn’t want to come, fine, I wasn’t going to make anybody come to college.”

Willie Elston, one of those in that first group of 67 students, said that until White showed up at his high school, CSULB was not something particularly on his radar.

“He’s the godfather of diversity,” Elston said of White. “He was one of the first professional folks who came to us from Cal State Long Beach and kind of explained to us about the possibility of getting prepared and coming to college.”

Elston was at Centennial High School in Compton and by his senior year had not received any college prep counseling regarding higher education opportunities. But that all changed when he met White.

“I remember meeting him the week that Martin Luther King was assassinated,” said Elston. “He came and spoke to an assembly of primarily black and Latino students, and shared with us his vision of our being able to go to Cal State Long Beach and he stayed after the assembly and chatted. We had an opportunity to talk, and he went on to explain to me what was necessary if I was serious about going to college. That kind of began me thinking that going to a four-year college was doable.”

Thanks to White, for many, it was doable, very doable.