June 2, 2000
In UCSD's effort to increase the number of underrepresented and low-income students at the university, Shirley Cunningham has long been at the forefront.
Cunningham, an assistant director in the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), retires May 31 after 35 years at UCSD, taking with her memories of a time when programs like EAOP "weren't even on the map."
What a difference time makes. Today, from the Chancellor on down, outreach efforts to boost underrepresented and low-income student enrollment have become a top priority at UCSD with encouraging results. Recent data on student admission for the freshman class of Fall 2000 show that of the 1,352 students admitted from San Diego and Imperial Counties, 46 percent were from key underrepresented ethnic groups (African-American, Latino and Native American) who had participated in EAOP programs sponsored by UCSD.
"The challenge remains to continue to come up with innovative ways to get qualified underrepresented and low-income students from area high schools to come to UCSD," says Cunningham, "and we can do that with the support of parents and participating schools."
Eliciting viable community support has been a cornerstone of Cunningham's EAOP career. Employing ambassador-like skills (a quality which has served her well throughout her stay at UCSD), she played an instrumental role in enrolling some of the earliest participating schools in the program, and has since been a force in motivating and encouraging hundreds of students to prepare early for college. Many of her former students are now successful professionals in their own right.
"I'm particularly proud of the students' lives that we've been able to touch through EAOP, and of the difference we've made in the community in helping so many young people make their college dreams a reality," Cunningham says in retrospect.
Starting her UCSD career as a clerk in the Purchasing Department in 1965, and later serving as administrative assistant to the director of the Educational Opportunity Program in 1968 before joining the University Partners Program (a forerunner of EAOP) in 1978, Cunningham has been student outreach efforts at the university increase in size and scope.
"The UC system began its EAOP efforts in 1976, and UCSD was among the first to initiate an intensive program," she says. "Now such programs are in place at 10 UC campuses."
As the senior EAOP assistant director at UCSD, Cunningham supervises the hiring and training of program assistants and counselor aides who assist at EAOP school sites. In addition, she acts as an important liaison between the program and the community, and oversees program activities at her 14 assigned schools in San Diego Unified, Grossmont and La Mesa School Districts. Before the EAOP grew to its present size, Cunningham oversaw program initiatives at all San Diego County high schools from 1978 to 1987.
EAOP efforts at UCSD are currently in place at 94 elementary, middle schools and high schools in San Diego and Imperial Counties, with close to 16,000 students participating. The aim of EAOP is to prepare students early for successful college admission through more than 20 intensive programs and activities, including after-school tutoring and mentoring in science, math and writing; college testing preparation; summer educational enrichment; UCSD tours and visits; educational workshops; parent meetings, and collaborative partnerships with county schools.
"When the program first began, we worked primarily with ninth, tenth and eleventh graders, but we later realized we had to start intervening as early as elementary school to begin to make a real difference in motivating, encouraging and showing kids how to become and remain educationally competitive," says Cunningham. "Our challenge lies in the fact that many students come from backgrounds which do not encourage high academic performance, even though many of these students are certainly capable of performing well. It's important that we help all students strive to be the best they can be."
Cunningham is herself no stranger to striving against adversity. Born in El Centro, CA, and reared most of her childhood in Southeast San Diego, Cunningham grew up in a family of seven children and soon learned the value of hard work. After graduating from San Diego High School, she worked as a ward clerk at Scripps Memorial Hospital and attended National University at night while raising two children. She graduated from National in 1978 with a degree in business administration.
"All I can say is my faith in God pulled me through," she says with a smile.
It was during this time that she joined the EAOP at UCSD, just in time to witness the program's burgeoning outreach efforts in Southeast San Diego. "Since I was quite familiar with that part of town, I was asked to help support EAOP initiatives there, including expanding student PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test) and SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) preparation activities," Cunningham recalls.
As testament to the wide respect she has earned in various San Diego communities among teachers, school administrators and community leaders, Cunningham is often asked to speak at churches, schools, sororities and neighborhood functions and has served on numerous school committees and task forces. In addition, she has been invited to deliver the commencement address at Memorial Academy Junior High School (her alma mater) in July.
As she retires, she says: "I just want to thank my staff for their valuable support, and I wish EAOP much success as it moves forward to enhance early college preparation for other students."