I first joined the Percy E. Sutton SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) Program at Baruch College as a social work graduate intern in 2009. I specifically selected Baruch College’s SEEK Program as my second-year social work internship because of its holistic approach in working with students as well as its mission to provide students the opportunity to earn a college degree. I also valued the team-centered philosophy practiced by the SEEK counselors. I viewed the SEEK Program as the ideal professional environment for me to develop as an effective social work practitioner. Immediately upon starting my internship, I discovered not only was I right, but I also wanted to continue my professional career in the SEEK Program at Baruch College. Nine years later, I now serve as its director.
SEEK is the higher education opportunity program at the four-year senior colleges at the City University of New York. It offers academic and financial support to students that meet the income and academic criteria. Since its inception in 1965, its mission is to provide college access to students who otherwise may not have been able to earn a college education. This program like many higher educational opportunity programs across the country has historically acknowledged and addressed the economic and educational disparities existing in primarily low-income communities of color. Additionally, SEEK and similar higher education opportunity programs paved the way in higher education and continues to serve as a model of strength-based student success support services.
As a first-generation college graduate, Latina and educator, I recognize the transformative power education has on students’ lives, families and communities. It is my commitment and vision to foster life-affirming educational experiences while also addressing the structural sociopolitical forces facing marginalized communities. Thus, serving as a leader of a higher education opportunity program offers me the privilege to fulfill that vision.
In many ways higher education opportunity programs can be seen as a college within a college. And yet, it is critical for institutions to include higher education opportunity programs within its fabric and mission. The SEEK Program at Baruch serves 774 SEEK students including 117 transfer students. We house sub-programs within SEEK, which include Academic Support, Counseling, 6-week Pre-Freshmen Summer Program, Student & Parent Orientation, Transfer Division, Urban Male Leadership Academy Scholars Program, Peer Mentoring, Academic Survival Program, Early Warning, SEEK Alumni Initiative and the January Math & Writing Program. This is in addition to all of the support services that the college offers to all its students.
My work as a leader of a higher education opportunity program connects me to a variety of internal and external partners. Running a program such as SEEK requires a collective effort with a team of people standing by the mission and vision of making higher education accessible to students. As such, I closely collaborate with Enrollment Management, Admissions, Financial Aid, Bursar, Registrar, Student Life, Advisement, Career Services, Counseling Services as well as numerous other departments and faculty members on campus. Additionally, since SEEK was signed into law in 1966 by the New York State Legislature, it is critical to continually advocate for the program’s relevance, impact and funding.
The core values of Baruch College’s SEEK Program are Achieving Excellence, Engaging Communities and Transforming Lives. We recognize that our students already come with a wealth of lived experiences and knowledge. Our team is privileged to witness and share our students’ college journey from start to finish. This past summer, we welcomed 166 incoming SEEK students. Most recently our program’s retention rate is 91% and 6-year graduation rate is 82%. Similar to the general student population, our SEEK students are active student leaders on campus, study abroad, volunteer, pursue professional careers in education, public affairs, business as well as go onto graduate schools. Moreover, many contribute back into their communities and return as alumni to mentor current SEEK students.
I am absolutely passionate about the work I am privileged to do each day. I love working with students and more importantly learning from them. My professional background in social work with a focus on community organization, planning and development builds on my work as an educator and advocate for equal access to quality education for all students. Furthermore, as a community organizing social work practitioner, higher education professional and gatekeeper, I apply a distinct lens rooted in social change and social justice. This is critical when challenging educational inequity and implementing progressive educational models in higher education.
Kristy Clementina Perez is the Director of a Higher Education Opportunity Program called the Percy E. Sutton SEEK Program at Baruch College. She is also pursuing her doctorate at Rutgers Graduate School of Education with a concentration of Education, Culture & Society. Kristy lives in Brooklyn, New York with her 18-month-old daughter and husband.