HEOP Celebrates Student Success Enabled by Professional Development Fund

When Bronx native Emely Abrigo Barrera ’24 thinks back to her younger self, she remembers a quieter, more closed-off girl who was hesitant to participate in her high school’s activities, much less volunteer for leadership roles.

It’s a far cry from how the Marymount Manhattan community views her. At MMC, Barrera has built a reputation as a go-to events manager: She organizes and hosts student functions, co-manages a Wellness Wednesday program, and, between classes, fits in an internship with a wedding planner. She’s also a familiar face at the Intercultural Center, where she serves as a capacity intern and is a member of MMC’s chapter of Tri-Alpha, an honor society for first-gen college students.

“I have definitely evolved,” said Barrera, a fashion marketing major and communications minor. And for her and dozens of other MMC students, that kind of growth has been made possible by the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and its new Professional Development Fund. “It all stems from there,” she said.

A partnership between New York State and independent colleges, HEOP provides up to five years of academic support and financial assistance to New York residents who would otherwise be unable to attend a postsecondary educational institution. MMC serves approximately 50 HEOP students.

The program can be life-changing. But it doesn’t cover all the professional and educational opportunities that help students thrive, said Tseday Alehegn, executive director of HEOP at MMC. “Under HEOP, state funds cover tuition, but students have other needs,” she said.

Enter the two-year-old Professional Development Fund. Established through the generosity of an anonymous donor, it supports a range of services in MMC’s HEOP program beyond tuition. That includes the HEOP Leadership Council, a paid internship and leadership program in which students meet with staff to plan programming, events, and assessment; a guest speaker series; and HEOP’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), which recruits male-identifying students and offers resources and support to increase their retention and graduation rates.

The fund also provides stipends for students enrolled in credit-bearing academic internships and covers participation in programs and trips run by Student Development and Activities as well as some costs related to study abroad. As HEOP closes out the academic year, it’s celebrating its student successes, many of which were spurred on by the fund.

For example, with help from the fund, HEOP staff were able to put Barrera, a member of the leadership council, to work organizing student programming and steer her toward her on- and off-campus internships. Those efforts helped her tap into talents she hadn’t been aware of.

“I’m still figuring out what I want to do after college, but HEOP has helped me focus on my strengths,” Barrera said. “I didn’t know I would be good at planning events—I just knew I was a very organized person who never missed a deadline. But HEOP kept encouraging me to do it, and the more they trusted me, the more I succeeded.”

For Ibrahim Bah ’24, a business management major minoring in economics, HEOP and the Professional Development Fund helped in a slightly different way: He didn’t discover a hidden talent, so much as find the inspiration he needed to pursue skills he already suspected he had.

“In high school, I knew I had the potential to be a leader,” he said. “But I didn’t have the confidence to speak up and voice my thoughts. I was much more introverted.”

That changed in the program. On his first tour of MMC, Bah, who hails from Johannesburg, South Africa, recalls how warmly students in the HEOP center welcomed him. The easy camaraderie and support—boosted by the center’s motto, “We succeed when all of us succeed”—would continue once he enrolled.

As a first-year student, he was mentored by an upperclassman through YMI. “My mentor told me all about life as an MMC student and gave me tips and tricks I could use throughout college, like how to schedule appointments with my professors and speak up if I don’t understand something,” Bah said.

It meant so much to him that, when the opportunity arose, he took over leadership of the YMI. Now Bah is the one organizing networking events for classmates, teaching them how to navigate college life, and speaking with prospective students. In the future, he hopes to work with start-ups, helping to bring their visions to life; his time in HEOP is proving to be a good training ground.

“HEOP pushed me to put my voice out there—I found myself adopting all the characteristics and traits of a leader,” he said. “College can be intimidating, especially as a person of color in a predominately white school, but HEOP offers you so much support. It gives us that extra boost to keep going so that you’re ready to take on the world.”

HEOP offers you so much support. It gives us that extra boost to keep going so that you’re ready to take on the world.” —Ibrahim Bah ’24

In some cases, like with business major Aisatou (Aisha) Ishimori ’23, HEOP has made it possible to travel the world as well. Ishimori was born in New York City but raised mainly in Japan; she returned to the Big Apple for the first time at 16 to attend high school and, she hoped, gain a different perspective.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and West African father, she had grown up primarily speaking French and didn’t fit expectations of what it meant to look or sound Japanese. “Because of my experiences in Japan, I was always curious about other cultures,” she said.

In New York, Ishimori had to learn English and navigate the American educational system largely on her own; her parents had remained in Japan while she stayed with relatives. But after a guidance counselor told her about MMC’s HEOP program, she met with Michael Salmon, Associate Vice President/Dean of Academic Excellence and Senior Advisor to the President, whose words have stuck with her since.

“He understood a lot of what I was going through,” she said. “And I remember that he told me I would feel safe in the HEOP community and how strong the bonds are.”

Ishimori would also get one other thing from the program: a push to pursue her passion for experiencing different cultures. HEOP administrators encouraged her to apply for a Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship, a highly competitive three-year program that provides funded summer internships and opportunities to study abroad. The application process can be grueling, requiring several personal statements, letters of recommendation, and interviews. Along with professors, HEOP staffers helped guide her through the process, “so I never felt alone,” Ishimori said.

Ishimori was one of just 15 students to be named Watson fellows in 2021. Since then, she has traveled to the Philippines and Bangladesh, interning for organizations such as Save the Children. This summer she’ll spend 10 weeks in Tanzania. During her travels, she remains in close contact with HEOP staff, texting about her experiences.

Now, as a graduating senior, she looks back on the weekly one-on-one HEOP check-ins that helped keep her on track, the laughter and conversations in the HEOP center, and the close guidance when her own parents were half a world away and sees how right Salmon was.

“At first, I thought HEOP was only going to support me in graduating from college. But truly, they gave us a safe haven, a home,” she said.