Chris Fuller needed help. It was September 2015. He was struggling through his first few weeks on the OCC campus. Fuller had come to OCC from Henninger High School where he was enrolled in the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. It’s a program which helps students overcome the barriers that cause them to drop out and abandon their education.
Fuller had been receiving guidance from Hillside since the 9th grade. Fortunately OCC had opened a Hillside office in the Gordon Student Center in time for the fall 2015 semester. That’s where Fuller would come and talk to his mentor, Renita Adams every day. “Chris’s situation really put the pressure on me to help him find his niche,” said Adams.
Adams called admission counselor Jason Barnes who also assists Hillside students. Through conversations with Fuller they realized he had chosen a major that wasn’t right for him. They introduced Fuller to Bob Tanchak, a professor in the Mechanical Technology department. Fuller spent time with Tanchak and fell in love with the Engineering Science major. “It’s hands-on which really attracted me to it,” said Fuller. “When I first came to OCC, I wanted to get out in two years and get a job. Now I may want to do four or six years of college.”
Fuller is one of the many success stories whose lives Hillside has played a significant role in transforming. Hillside changes the norm for students and families living in generational poverty by giving them necessary guidance and the tools to be successful in school, thereby expanding their access to education and employment opportunities. “Our students come from poverty and they’re more likely to drop out of school,” said Adams. “Even in college they still have most of those risk factors. For me it’s about helping them make that connection between having a college degree and a successful future.”
Fuller became a part of Hillside at Henninger where his advocate, Patrick McCarthy played a huge role in Fuller’s life. “Mr. McCarthy showed me how important school was. Because of him I got help with my homework, got help with my Regents and got a job,” said Fuller.
Hillside’s Youth Employment Training program makes sure students are ready for the responsibility which comes with a job. Students have to meet specific academic, attendance and behavior requirements. Once a student clears that hurdle Hillside will help them find a job. Fuller received a scholarship from Wegmans and started working at its James Street store in 11th grade. He still works there, primarily as a cashier and loves it. “Everybody is so friendly. It’s a great environment, especially for your first job,” said Fuller.
The Hillside program is open to students in the Syracuse City School District. At OCC Adams serves approximately 100 students who have come to campus from the city. She worked with students at Corcoran high school for four years before opening Hillside’s first office on campus. Adams does a little bit of everything to help students succeed. “I’m their advocate. I’m their school mom. Whether I’m helping them to get organized, or to having those conversations about what’s going on at home and how it’s affecting their school life or getting them involved in different clubs or organizations on campus. I wear several different hats but I’m used to it.”
Adams has the unique ability to relate to these students because she used to be one of them. “I grew up on the south side and went to city schools. I understand their lives and the temptations and barriers they face. I share my story with them all the time. It helps them open up with me about what’s going on with them in their lives.”
Adams came to OCC and earned a degree in Humanities in 2003 and continued on to Syracuse University where she would graduate with a degree in Child and Family Studies. An organization named The Urban League guided her through her troubled times. “I had a mentor in my life who pushed me to get through Henninger, to get through OCC, to get through S.U. I want to be that same person for these students.”
Adams is now in her second semester working at OCC. In between classes there’s always a line of students waiting to speak with her. She comes to work with a big smile and boundless energy. Her fuel is the students she helps. “I don’t take my role lightly. I understand how important it is. For a lot of the kids I’m whom they rely on to be that cheerleader, that motivator, reminding them of their goals. The students keep me smiling and keep me pushing to go the extra mile for them.”
As for Fuller, Adams sees a different person and student than she did just one semester ago. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing. He wants to do the work. He’s getting tutoring to help with his grades. If he needs to meet with a professor he does that. He’s on the right path!”