Former sociology major earns EOP’s highest honor

Former sociology major earns EOP’s highest honor

06/06/2023 

As a new SUNY Cortland graduate, Nia Vega ’23 sets a high bar for what she hopes to achieve working with underrepresented populations in the fields of either education or social work.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” said Vega, who earned her degree on May 13 in sociology with a concentration in criminology and a minor in computer applications. Her first name is pronounced “Nee-ah.”

A former campus leader in many different equity and social justice initiatives at Cortland, the New York City native recently became one of only 46 honorees from campuses across the SUNY system to earn a 2023 Norman R. McConney, Jr. Award for EOP Student Excellence.

The fourth SUNY Cortland student to be honored in the award’s four years of existence within SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), Vega attended and was recognized at an April 17 ceremony in Albany, N.Y.

New York State Senator Cordell Cleare and Assembly member Edward Gibbs, who represent Vega’s Harlem neighborhood, had endorsed Vega for this award.

The McConney Award is named in honor of the late co-architect of the EOP. A graduate of the University at Albany, McConney was a former assistant dean for special programs at SUNY and a champion for addressing inequities faced by underrepresented populations.

“From the start, Nia has been one of our most involved, active and high performing students,” said Cortland EOP Director Lewis Rosengarten. “She made sure to visit campus to interview with me prior to her acceptance and has never looked back.

“Always taking advantage of our services and support, Nia then emerged as a student who helps others recognize and utilize their resources.”

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Nia Vega

In spring 2022, for her accomplishments to that point, Vega was one of only 171 college students in the country to earn a prestigious 2022-23 Newman Civic Fellowship. The award was from Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. As a Newman Civic Fellow, she took part in the yearlong program, which provides training and resources to future leaders.

Vega has earned SUNY Cortland EOP Academic Achievement awards and was inducted into Chi Alpha Epsilon, the national honor society for the Educational Opportunity Program,  which requires at least a 3.0 overall GPA for two semesters in a row.

Having benefited from SUNY Cortland’s EOP, Vega would like nothing better than to see the students she helps today become tomorrow’s movers and shakers. At SUNY Cortland, she mentored new students as a senior counselor taking part in the EOP Summer Institute program for three summers.

Describing that work as “exemplary,” Rosengarten said, “I can think of no student more deserving of this honor.”

“Nia is one of the first to volunteer to help out with any EOP event,” added Cortland EOP Academic Counselor Judy Stoddard M ’10. “She takes her commitments seriously and is a great role model for students who are interested in getting involved on campus.”

Vega blends her social advocacy work with her academics. She conducted social justice research with two sociology professors, Elizabeth Bittel and Kent Johnson. She and three other research interns conducted in-person interviews with students of color that comprised a sociological study about race and racism at SUNY Cortland. Her research aimed to help educators understand perceptions of race and racism on the campus and in the greater Cortland community.

Vega also served in civic engagement internships with the SUNY Cortland Cupboard, a student food pantry, and for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services of Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Counties.

Her campus social justice endeavors have ranged from organizing informative discussions and assemblies to supporting peaceful demonstrations. Vega has served as an effective advocate for the victims and survivors of sexual assault and was 2021-22 president of SAFER, Students Active For Ending Rape.

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Nia Vega poses for the camera with her award beside Chancellor King. In the top image, she is shown on the left with her Cortland EOP mentor Judy Stoddard M '10.

Vega’s other leadership roles were as president of the campus club Men of Value and Excellence (M.O.V.E.), which depended on in-person interactions and struggled to remain in existence during the COVID-19 pandemic. M.O.V.E., which has expanded to work with all men on the campus to foster a culture of wellness and leadership, with Vega’s support hosted its major conference, the annual Men of Color Leadership Summit, in 2022. She was also president of the campus’ only Latino dance team Ritmo Latino.

Vega was employed by Recreational Sports as a supervisor for intramural and sport club programs. She has also served her former high school as a Bridge to College Coach through the College Bound Initiative.

The EOP, now more than 50 years old, serves more than 10,000 students a year on SUNY campuses. It supports a diverse student body, and many participants are first in their family to go to college. In many cases, EOP scholars outperform their peers, with 68 percent of EOP students completing a bachelor’s degree within six years. Since the program’s inception, more than 80,000 EOP students have earned SUNY degrees, participate in the workforce and contribute to the social and economic well-being of their communities.


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