Two Opportunity Program graduates, 50 years apart
Barbara Lucas-Roberts graduated in 1973; Issy Mejia in 2023. Lucas-Roberts was in the first cohort of Opportunity Program (OP) students to graduate from Skidmore College. Mejia belongs to the 50th. Five decades separate them, but their experiences — as first-generation college students, women of color, OP students, Skidmore alumnae, and more — connect them in powerful ways.
Days before walking the stage at SPAC, Mejia met Lucas-Roberts. Their bond was immediate … maybe even magical. In a long and heartfelt conversation, Mejia and Lucas-Roberts compared their Skidmore experiences and together told a story of change (in some areas more than others), parallels (the kind that bond us), and what it means to be an OP student at Skidmore.
Issy Mejia ’23, whose family is from the Dominican Republic, grew up in the Bronx. A first-generation college graduate, Mejia served as president of the Class of 2023 and graduated with a degree in social work and a minor in Black studies.
Barbara Lucas-Roberts ’73, whose family migrated from the South during the Great Migration to escape racial violence and pursue opportunity, grew up in Albany. A first-generation college graduate with a degree in sociology, she retired from New York state government after 30+ years of professional public service.
When Skidmore first called …
Issy: So, I went to school in the Bronx. It was a very new school, and I was only in its
second class. We were in a part of the Bronx where we just didn’t feel like anyone
really cared about us, and we didn’t have many resources. Looking at colleges wasn’t
a thing, but I applied to a bunch and Skidmore was a top choice. When they called
me, I was in Costa Rica on a school trip, and I knew my mom would be upset with the
international fee, but I was like, “I have to pick up!”
Barbara: I can remember the day I found out I was going to Skidmore like it was yesterday. I was in my guidance counselor’s office when her phone rang. After she hung up, she told me it was Skidmore College. They had started a new program, the Academic Opportunity Program, to support high-achieving students from underrepresented backgrounds, and she said I should do it. That phone call changed my life.
Issy: Yup. I’m there. That call was it.
Barbara: One of Skidmore’s current board members, Linda Jackson-Chalmers ’73, and I actually went to high school together, and we both got on a bus up to campus. They showed me a dorm. I sat in a window seat and looked out and I said, “This is where I’m going to be.”
On being first-generation college students …
Barbara: Being first-gen is an incredible experience, but you also feel the pressure of everything
and everybody on your shoulders. That’s the way I felt when I started in 1969. I was
like, “I have to do this for myself, my parents, for my grandparents.” Neither of
my great-grandmothers could write their names. They lived in the segregated South,
could only sign an X, could only drink out of color water fountains, sit in the colored
section. Knowing their life, I had to do this. But I also said, “Here I come! Skidmore
is about to unleash somebody who is serious about their education, changing society,
and lifting up her own family and those around her.” Issy, I'm sure you have felt
the same pressure.
Issy: I’m also first-generation and definitely understand the feeling. I grew up with a single mom, who worked three or four jobs just to get me through public school and put food on the table. She was the first person in our family to immigrate to the United States from the Dominican Republic. My grandmothers grew up under a dictatorship, and there were laws about girls not being allowed to go to school.
Aside from my family, being at Skidmore is a big deal for my high school community, too. My graduating class had about 40 people. Of those 40, five of us made it to college. Many are in jail, and several have been killed. So when I say, “I made it this far,” it’s different, you know? I’ve not only made it to today, but I’m graduating from college.
I feel like I’m in a dream, and my family is, like, beyond words. My mom invited everyone she knows to graduation. About 30 people are coming. Even though a lot of them don’t speak English or really understand the accomplishments, they know it’s a big deal and are so proud of me.
On being campus leaders and advocating for change ...
Issy: When I first came to Skidmore, I was scared. I didn’t understand what I could bring to a campus of people who came from such different experiences than my own. But I always knew I wanted to leave my mark. I also need people to know I was here and that it’s a big deal for me and my family that I’m here.
So I got involved. I joined student government. I’m class president. Last semester, for instance, I had the honor of hosting the first-ever Skidmore Natural Hair Festival. I brought Black business owners to campus to discuss their experiences in corporate America and provide free haircuts and hair products for Black students. Seeing over 300 students of color on Case Green … and to have been the one to make it happen … Like you said: Skidmore changed my life.
Barbara: 300 students! Wow. That … that’s … Wow. I am so proud of you.
You know, when I was at Skidmore, there were times when I felt alone. I knew my experience was different. I don’t think there were 10 students of color. We were just a handful and were part of a consortium split across other colleges — Russell Sage, RPI, Union, etc. We had each other and that connection was so important. But there were experiences and opportunities on campus that I didn’t avail myself to that I wish I had.
But like you, I was also driven for action. We had a sit-in and we talked with President (Joseph) Palamountain about how to change things. He listened and respected what we were doing. Eventually, we joined the administration in the work of recruiting underrepresented students. We got out into high schools and told people about Skidmore.
We wanted to enact change so that one day you could be sitting where you are.
On progress and perspective ...
Issy: It’s so interesting to hear you mentioning the same things we’re talking about today. In comparison, a lot has changed. We still feel a lot of what you felt and are very much striving for more, but to think of what you had versus what we have … Wow.
Barbara: Progress can be slow. But what you’re telling me today is proof that change has happened, and what you’ve done is proof that change will continue.
Keep in mind that we were protesting everything back then — Black rights, women’s rights, the Vietnam War. And when it came to graduation and walking across the stage, my mother said, “Don’t you dare do anything crazy.” So, I went in all proper. But when I got to the end … yeah, I did a quick Black power fist, and my mother just smiled at me. She knew I had to do something. She knew I was there, the granddaughter of someone who couldn’t even drink out of the water fountain they wanted, graduating from one of the top schools in the country. I had to be me.
Issy: Yes. I feel like that’s why I got so involved. If I have complaints or there are areas where I want to see change, I can’t expect change to happen if I don’t become a part of it. As much as I wish everyone just knew what my experience was like, the reality is that they don’t. President (Marc) Conner and I don’t share many identities, so I can’t expect him to know my exact needs, but he and other administrators have listened. When we speak up and say “Hey, I need this,” they’ve responded.
Barbara: That’s what’s important. When you get out there, you’ll have to keep doing that. No one will know what’s on your mind unless you tell them. We must learn to advocate for ourselves while also respecting each other, learning where to find common ground, and leaning on our support systems.
On the OP family …
Barbara: So many people at Skidmore were supporters of ours. Members of the OP and greater campus community were not going to let us give up or fail. Today, I appreciate all those people who held out their hand to us. They would say, “You’re not going to blow it. You’re going to be successful. You’re going to make it through this program, and you’re going to go through your career.” And they’d give you that little wink on campus, that nod that said, “I see you. I know you can do this.”
Issy: The way you’re describing these people is exactly the same for me. When I think of
who is here today, that’s exactly how they are with us. The OP team is like our parents:
They won’t let us get out of line. Even if someone else wanted to act a fool, I’d
say “No way! I don’t want to talk to (OP Director) Kelli (Rouse) tomorrow.”
I also can remember all the times I’ve sat and cried in the OP office or with my other advisors, the moments when I've questioned if I belong here. I’d say, “I cannot do this. It’s too much,” and they’d say, “Oh yes, you can! You can definitely do it. We just need to figure it out.”
They gave me the courage to step up, succeed, and belong.
Barbara: Yes, they helped us see that if we can do this, we can do anything. That’s the way that I felt. The Skidmore Opportunity Program forever changed my life.
On dreams for the future ...
Barbara: Issy, if you had a magic wand, what would you like to see change for OP?
Issy: Two ideas come to mind. First, I would like a dedicated space for students of color on campus. Wyckoff Center is part of that, but I’d love to see something additional, somewhere we can cook for each other, have a meal, and just be among ourselves. Second, as I mentioned earlier, I’d like to see the work of Natural Hair Fest continue — to ensure there is access to the resources Black students need.
Barbara: You know, I get that. We talked about a lot of the same. I also hope for a world with fewer labels. I’m absolutely proud to be an OP student, but I dream of a world where that’s not needed.
Issy: Yes. At the same time, I think we’ll always be bonded. Our stories are different.
Barbara: Absolutely! Look at us. There’s a camaraderie among us that will always exist. A bond that can’t be shaken.
I’m going to give you my number. You reach out to me any time about anything. Because we have a connection as of today. I want you to know that. God has allowed a full-circle moment to take place here, and I think we have to take advantage of that.
One day, you will be on the phone with an OP graduate like yourself and your hair will be gray like mine, and you will get to say, “I’m here for you.”
On watching Skidmore today …
Issy: Barbara, I’m curious, when you see Skidmore today, what are you proud of?
Barbara: You. That’s number one.
I’ve also been proud to see the programs the College is creating and the work the College is doing to invest in diverse student success. Your president’s Racial Justice Initiative, the Black Studies Program, the willingness to continue to self-reflect and evolve. That’s my Skidmore. I’m proud of that.
wishes for the 2023 graduate ...
Barbara: Issy, you are a leader. I see it in you. You’re going to do big things, not just
for yourself, not just for your community, but for the world. I see you, girl. Don’t
hold back. Be you. Never second guess yourself. You have made it to this point and
you’re going to make it even further.
Remember, when you go back home, you'll be going back as a different person, just as I did. You're a college graduate now. Through your Skidmore education you've experienced things and had opportunities that your family and community haven't. Ultimately, you look at the world and society differently and have the confidence, skills, and education to make it better.
I congratulate you, the other OP graduates, and the entire Class of 2023. Welcome to Skidmore’s alumni community. You belong here.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.