Speaking on June 18 to a group of incoming freshmen in Fordham’s HEOP program, Joseph Skrzypczak (CBA ’77) relayed a simple message:
I’ve been where you are. You can be where I am.
HEOP, or Higher Education Opportunity Program, is a New York state-administered initiative created in 1969 that enables students with academic and financial disadvantages to attend college.
Skrzypczak, president and chief executive officer of Océ North America, encouraged the students with stories about his own upbringing and career.
“My mom was a house cleaner and my dad sorted mail at the post office at night,” he said. “My dad said, ‘Look, you’re all going to college. I don’t know how you are going to do it, but you have to break the mold.’ And somehow we did it.”
Skrzypczak explained that he commuted to campus, worked after school and during the summers, and “did what I had to do” to earn his degree, because he understood the advantages that are available to people with a college education.
“My first job after Fordham was with Price Waterhouse, which opened up a number of opportunities that allowed me to branch out,” he said. “One of my first assignments was to go to Liberia, Africa, and I had never been on an airplane before. What an experience.
“Every time one of these experiences came to me, I grabbed it because I wanted to learn and I wanted to expand my skills,” he said.
Nearly half of the 78 incoming HEOP students are the first in their families to attend college, as was Skrzypczak, who is now a member of the President’s Council at Fordham.
Among its other good works, the President’s Council has partnered with HEOP on a mentoring program that allows underprivileged students to receive guidance from professionals at the top of their industries.
Skrzypczak related his experience mentoring a war refugee from Kosovo.
“In 1999, most of the population in Kosovo was Muslim,” he explained, “and being a Muslim, he was chased out by the Serbs. Still, he wanted to be one of the first individuals from his family to get a college degree, and then work at one of the Big Four accounting firms.”
Despite entering Fordham with poor English skills and struggling academically during his first year, the student flourished under Skrzypczak’s guidance. His grades began to improve and he landed a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers after graduation.
Skrzypczak told the pre-freshmen students that each of them had the chance to write similar stories of success.
“Take advantage of resources,” he said. “If you have that work ethic and the passion to succeed, you will do it. There’s no doubt in my mind; it can be done.”