Urban Education Initiative Celebrates 15 Years of Community Partnerships

When educators and supporters of Vassar’s Urban Education Initiative (UEI) gathered recently to celebrate the program’s 15th anniversary, Ayo Opuiyo ’22 made sure she was there to take part in the festivities.

Poughkeepsie High School grad Ayo Opuiyo ’22 (left) chats with UEI Executive Director John Bradley and city school board President Felicia Watson.

Opuiyo, a product of the City of Poughkeepsie school system, says she doubts she’d be at Vassar if the program didn’t exist. She says she learned about UEI’s Exploring College program when she was a sophomore at Poughkeepsie High School. “I signed up the day I heard about it,” she says, “and being on the campus that summer was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

Opuiyo is now one of more than 100 Vassar students who act as tutors and mentors for more than 200 Poughkeepsie students. She was one of a half-dozen speakers who lauded the organization at the 15th birthday celebration at the Alumnae/i House on March 1.

Juanita Herrera ’18, a former UEI volunteer and now an Education Fellow for the program, speaks at the anniversary celebration as co-founder Christopher Roellke (right) looks on.

John Bradley, UEI Executive Director, noted the program has more student volunteers than any other organization on campus. “Today is a celebration of the meaningful role that the students have played in the lives of thousands of students enrolled in the city school system,” Bradley says, “and the program benefits our own students as well.”

Volunteers involved in the Vassar English Language Learners Outreach Program (VELLOP), provide tutoring to students who are learning English in the city’s elementary and secondary schools. The Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) program matches middle school students with Vassar tutors and mentors. The Exploring College program helps students prepare for college by providing help with test preparation and financial aid advice, as well as a four-week enrichment program on the Vassar campus during the summer.

Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley (left) chats with Ayo Opuiyo ’22 and Opuiyo’s former third-grade teacher, Maribeth Smith.

Professor of Education and former Dean of the College Christopher Roellke, a founder of UEI, said the 15th anniversary offered the college the opportunity to thank city school officials and supporters for making UEI a successful program for Poughkeepsie students as well as those at Vassar. The Poughkeepsie-based Dyson Foundation and the United Way of Orange-Dutchess are major supporters of the program. “Many of our donors, as well as our students and teachers and administrators, are here today, and we are grateful to all of you,” Roellke says. “We look forward to increasing Vassar’s role in the city school district in the future.”

City School Board President Felicia Watson said the values that govern the Urban Education Initiative coincide with those of the district. “Our goal is the education of the whole child, and Vassar has been a key stakeholder in that effort for 15 years,” Watson says. “Our students learn more than academic subjects when they interact with Vassar students. They learn life skills, and they’re inspired to go to college themselves. This program truly builds a bridge between the college and the school district.”

Robert Dyson, chair of the Dyson Foundation, addresses those gathered at the 15th birthday celebration of the Urban Education Initiative. The Dyson Foundation has been a supporter since UEI’s inception.

Robert Dyson, chair of the Dyson Foundation, said building such a bridge was one of his goals when he and others in his foundation agreed to fund the program 15 years ago. “When we talked about this with Chris Roellke and (then-Vassar President) Cappy Hill, we talked about ways to get kids off the street and into college and ways to get Vassar students off the campus and into the street,” Dyson says. “This program has been forming meaningful attachments ever since, and after 15 years, I can say we’re just getting started.”