Updated: Oct 24, 2019
By Irelys Clifton -
It’s a cool autumn day on Thursday, October 3rd, as I sit in the office belonging to the Educational Opportunity Fund program. While waiting for my interviewee to finish up a meeting, I notice sticky-notes that are scattered all over the walls, with messages such as, “I will graduate” and “I want to have a good career.” These words of encouragement, written by students at PCCC, are what the Educational Opportunity Fund, or EOF, program is all about.
PCCC’s EOF program, established over five decades ago, helps disadvantaged students earn a college degree. With that being said, no one would know the ins and outs of the program better than Michelle Softley, the Director of the EOF program. Mrs. Softley has worked at PCCC for forty years, having been hired in 1979. Due to her longevity at the college, room A207 was recently named in her honor.
Finally getting the opportunity to talk to Mrs. Softley, who casually sports black pleated pants with flats and a striped sweater, she explains just how much PCCC has changed in the past forty years. “When I first came here, there were only two thousand students,” she said. “Now there are ten thousand students”. She also added that Founders Hall, part of Academic Hall, and the Financial Aid department were the only areas that existed at the time.
Mrs. Softley also appreciates the diversity in PCCC. Having been raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a town inhabiting less than 200,000 people, she stated that she didn’t see much diversity growing up. “You were either white or black,” she said. “There were hardly any Hispanics—literally”. She finds it exciting that she’s able to interact with people of many different cultures on a daily basis.
While attending college at the University of Michigan her major was Business Administration; she hoped to eventually graduate and attend Law School – instead she transferred to Upsala College to complete her degree. Regarding the change, Mrs. Softley admitted she has always wanted to help people, but felt that the legal system just wasn’t for her. Prior to becoming Director of the EOF program, Mrs. Softley was the Assistant Director of the Financial Aid department.
After earning an MBA, Mrs. Softley wanted to do more. To get the job as Director of the EOF program, she simply applied for it, encouraged by colleagues. “The Director of EOF told me she was leaving, and said that I’d be perfect for the job,” she said. “And my boss was like ‘Absolutely. You can do this.’” With her credentials and experience, Mrs. Softley was more than qualified for the job.
Mrs. Softley believes, “To be a good Director, you have to be a good administrator”. She always adheres to regulations and guidelines that come with her position. With a budget of $700,000 provided by the state and the college, Mrs. Softley makes sure that it is used to supply students with the most efficient resources available.
As Director, Mrs. Softley has served twenty-five years on the EOF Professional Association of New Jersey (EOFPANJ), an organization that monitors any policy changes that can possibly affect the program. She started out as an advocacy person, was soon promoted as their Treasurer, and eventually became President of the association. Being part of the EOFPANJ helped Mrs. Softley interact and familiarize herself with other EOF officials at a state-level.
Being in a position of influence, Mrs. Softley uses it accordingly to provide a voice for the students of PCCC. If she wants to recommend someone to another college, or if she just wants something done, she knows that she isn’t “just another voice on the phone.” Making connections, whether it be with a colleague or a student, is important to Mrs. Softley, because it helps her understand people better.
Even after forty years, she still finds motivation to continue to be Director of the EOF program. Mrs. Softley explained, “I’m doing the job that I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little girl and didn’t know it existed.” She added that she always wanted to help people who grew up striving in the inner-city, like she did. Not only does Mrs. Softley want to lend a hand to those struggling financially and academically, but she also wants to be a role model to those in need of one.
The most important advice that Mrs. Softley can give as a result of her experience is “make sure you’re doing a job you really like.” “If you’re going to work mad all the time, don’t do it,'' she added. Mrs. Softley said that with her MBA, she could’ve been the Vice President of a corporation, rather than the Director of PCCC’s EOF program. But she doesn’t know if she would have been happy doing that.
Mrs. Softley is truly an inspiration. It’s comforting to know that there are people out there who genuinely want to help others. She said that even though the tasks are time-consuming, it’s worth it, as she’s making a difference in someone’s life. Don’t be afraid to stop by the EOF office located in room A250. Mrs. Softley, along with other EOF staff, will be more than willing to help you.