New Director of Opportunity Programs Aaron Ray credits his grandmother, Vena Ray, as the inspiration for everything he does.
“She would have been eligible to be in an Opportunity Program if it had existed when she attended SUNY Cobleskill,” Aaron Ray said of her education back in the 1950s. “Unfortunately for her it did not; she had to scrape by just to survive. But the stories of her struggle keep me motivated to do the job I do. It feels fulfilling, because of her, to be able to guide the next generation of students.”
Fresh from a five-year stint with the Opportunity Programs at Skidmore College, Ray said that he’s excited to be on College Hill, where he’ll work to continue a longstanding tradition of helping students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, but who demonstrate the ability to compete successfully in Hamilton’s academically competitive environment, achieve success.
“Hamilton’s Opportunity Program has a rich history. Phyllis Breland, and Christine Johnson before her, are giants in the Opportunity Programs’ world. I am both honored and humbled to follow in their footsteps.”
Born in Albany and raised in Carlisle, N.Y., Ray earned his bachelor’s degree in American studies at Union College and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Quinnipiac University. After graduating from Union, he accepted a job in its Admissions Office and worked for five years recruiting Opportunity Programs students. From there he went to Skidmore to work in its program.
“The fact I grew up in a rural area and understand the challenges of being an OP student, I believe I can help students with that at Hamilton,” he said. “I’m excited that I’ve moved into a director position where I feel I can most make a difference.”
Ray noted that he’s especially looking forward to being part of the College’s innovative ALEX (Advise, Learn, Experience) program that initiates with the Class of 2025. The new coordinated advising network will offer students a holistic approach to achieving academic success, career preparation, experiential learning, and personal growth.
“With the quality of the students, Hamilton’s one-of-a-kind programs such as the Oral Communication Center, and other supportive initiatives, it’s truly a great time to be here,” he said.
Already Ray has been impressed with the students he’s met, noting how dedicated they are not only to academics, but also to keeping up whatever activities they can during the pandemic. There are currently about 150 Opportunity Program students on the Hill through the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and the Hamilton Scholars program. HEOP is supported in part by the NYS Department of Education and open to New York residents. Hamilton Scholars are students from New York who may be above the financial guidelines, from out of state, or who are international residents.
Ray said his plans for the remainder of the academic year come down to one word: survival. “My goal is to help students and our staff successfully finish this semester. Hopefully by the fall there will be a return to normalcy,” he said.
Fortunately the biggest challenge Ray faces — at least for now — is not funding. “We are very fortunate to be so supported by the institution," he said. "We’re also fortunate that the state legislature is increasing funding for Opportunity Programs in this upcoming budget, and that doesn’t happen often.”
Instead, Ray is looking ahead to the summer when his team will welcome the OP Class of 2025. “We have a lot of planning to do, and some of that is contingent on where we are with the pandemic. Our goal is to host our summer program in person, and that will take support from the entire campus community,” he said. “This incoming class will face challenges no other OP class will have ever dealt with because they will have spent the previous 17 months in pandemic/quarantine/remote/hybrid school, but we’re confident we will be up for the task.”
Ray also said he looks forward to moving to the Clinton area with his wife, two daughters, and three dogs.