Release Date: June 2, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y. – A single parent raising three young children while battling a debilitating disease for more than a decade. A civic-minded entrepreneur who achieved her fantasy of owning her own ice cream truck. A woman who overcame an “attitude” to find a “new lens” to redefine her life.
These are the latest stories of redemption that were celebrated recently at the University at Buffalo’s Educational Opportunity Center’s 2017 Alumni Reception.
These three graduates received awards or special recognition at UBEOC’s annual alumni reception held on May 19 at the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Center building at 555 Ellicott St., and at the UBEOC graduation ceremony on May 24 in Slee Hall on the North Campus.
“I am always amazed — but never surprised — by the enthusiasm of our graduates, their commitment to excellence and their perseverance,” said Julius Gregg Adams, executive director of the UBEOC. “According to my father, wisdom is knowledge guided by understanding. I believe our students are successful because they have come to realize this through their hard work and determination. They are EOC’s greatest legacy.”
This year’s three signature alumni award recipients are the latest EOC graduates recognized for what EOC administrators have called “redemption stories.” Their lives and accomplishments are typical of UBEOC graduates who have inspired others through their determination, courage and ability to use education to change the direction and arc of their lives — often in dramatic and drastic ways.
The three major award winners for this year’s EOC alumni and commencement ceremonies are:
· Charmaine Leonard, who returned to the EOC in 2008 after struggling to raise three children and battling a major illness for more than a decade. Uncertain about her future, Leonard was determined to reunite with the EOC because there, she said, “I could find my self-esteem.”
Graduating in 2009 from the registered medical assistant program, Leonard accepted a nurse’s aide position at Sisters of Charity Hospital and a part-time drug screening position at Quest Laboratories. In 2012, she accepted another nurse’s aide position at the Buffalo VA Medical Center in addition to her job at Sisters.
“Juggling two jobs with family responsibilities just strengthened my resolve to build my career,” she said, “especially after having to be out of the job market for so long. EOC faculty and staff were my foundation.”
Leonard is now head administrator for the chief of cardiology at the Buffalo VA hospital, where she performs administrative and clinical duties for the chief of cardiology and staff that includes 15 attending physicians, 10 student fellows, four nurse practitioners and two physician assistants.
“My lights and gas used to get turned off,” Leonard said. “Now I take cruises. I used to catch a bus; now I drive a 2016 truck. EOC helped me find my footing. I earned my success and I continue to professionally grow. I feel a part of society now.”
Leonard received the UBEOC’s Distinguished Alumni Award recognizing an alumnus who demonstrates the EOC mission of lifelong learning and self-empowerment. She accepted her award at the EOC Commencement ceremonies in Slee Hall.
· Patricia A. Elliott-Patton, who cited her “personal GPS” that led her to enroll in the UBEOC College Preparation Program. “I was able to recalculate,” she said. “The EOC provided me direction and was the gear I needed to shift me.”
Elliott-Patton was married three times, had four children and at one time received public assistance. After working at WUFO as its traffic manager, she found her true calling as a case manager assisting homeless women with the Community Action Organization of Erie County’s Julian B. Dargan Independent Learning Center. After four years she transferred to the CAO’s Alphonso “Rafi” Greene Jr. Masten Resource Center as the assistant director. She currently is director in training there and will become the center director in July.
Elliott-Patton has an extensive record of service to the community. She has participated in numerous CAO projects, including the “Better Schools, Better Neighborhoods” initiative. She serves as the second vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council advocating for parents to ensure their children receive a quality education. She is also an active member of the Buffalo Kwanzaa Committee as the Children’s Kwanzaa chairperson.
In addition, she organizes the “Raising Queens Program” at the Health Sciences Charter School, which helps high school girls set goals and develop positive decision-making skills. In April 2016, Elliott-Patton ran for the East District seat on the Buffalo School Board, receiving an endorsement from The Buffalo News.
Her latest enterprise is working as an entrepreneur. She is launching her new ice cream truck business called Children of the Sun Water Ice.
“I always fantasized about having my own ice cream truck when I was a kid,” she says.
Elliott-Patton received the Arthur O. Eve Education and Community Service Award, presented to a current UBEOC student or graduate who demonstrates leadership, advocacy, community service and commitment to education. She received her award at the EOC graduation ceremonies in Slee Hall.
· DeVika Szymanski-Lynch, who admitted her attitude problem came after experiencing traumatic life incidents, some caused by her own bad judgment. But the EOC staff never judged her or her life’s circumstances, Szymanski-Lynch said. She enrolled in the EOC’s medical assisting program and later in the medical clinic lab technician program after watching her grandmother deteriorate in a nursing home and enduring her son’s six surgeries by age 6.
The belief that faculty and staff had in her “helped my true character evolve,” Szymanski-Lynch said. “EOC helped me take the blinders off, which had kept me focused on the past. I envisioned through a new lens; I could see my future.”
After graduating from EOC, Szymanski-Lynch worked as a medical assistant at Buffalo Medical Group. She then enrolled at Bryant & Stratton College, earning an associate’s degree as an occupational studies medical assistant. But after giving birth to her second son, she herself experienced major health issues.
Szymanski-Lynch was recognized at the Alumni Reception ceremonies on May 19 as an alumna or alumnus who has faced and met life challenges.
“No paycheck can truly compensate for the pride I have in UBEOC students and alumni,” said Margot Barrett Keysor, administrator of alumni affairs and student development. “I speak from the perspective of having just received my 30-year recognition of working at UBEOC, first in Career Services and now in Alumni Affairs.
“I have had, and continue to have, the professional fortune to see our learners become accomplished in the English language and embrace a new culture, roll off public assistance and earn high school equivalency diplomas, field certifications and bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“I witness them cashing their first professional paychecks, putting into their 401Ks and earning career promotions. And I have been blessed to watch their children grow and do the very same.”
The UBEOC commencement graduated more than 200 students in programs including English as a second language, high school equivalency, college preparation, customer service, dental assisting, medical billing and coding, patient services technician and registered medical assistant.
Students who maintained a 3.0 or better grade-point average were presented with Outstanding Academic Achievement Awards.
Student Incentive Awards were presented to students demonstrating academic excellence, perfect attendance, exemplary conduct, achievements and the ability to overcome challenges.
This year’s Friend of the EOC Award, given to an individual or organization demonstrating keen understanding and outstanding commitment in support of the UBEOC’s mission, students and community, went to the St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy.
The UBEOC’s Alumni Reception honored 23 alumni volunteers who helped with signature events, including the Strengthening Families Event, an EOC Open House, Community Partners Day, Juneteenth, International Fest, Hispanic Heritage Day and the Community Resource Fair. “Paying it backwards,” alumni attending the event donated non-perishable goods to benefit St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy food pantry.
“Educational Opportunity Center students and alumni are a testament as to what the human spirit can overcome when faced with obstacles and accomplish when afforded opportunity,” Keysor said, noting that “‘opportunity’ is EOC’s middle name.”