A Profile of the Director of the PCCC Educational Opportunity Fund
Michelle Softley has traveled to 29 countries, but her most important journey was the detour that steered her away from a career in law and into higher education. Today, as Director of the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Program at Passaic County Community College, she helps financially and academically disadvantaged students obtain a college education.
Background and Education
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Softley already had the desire to help make a better world. She attended the University of Michigan where she initially aspired to be a lawyer. “I chose that path, because of the injustices I had seen over the years,” she explained. “I felt that as a lawyer, I would have the power to correct them.” The idealistic young woman was, however, dismayed by some of the attorneys she met who earned their high salaries by negotiating plea bargains for drug dealers and other criminals. “They weren’t helping the people who really needed the help,” Softley said.
Disenchanted with the legal profession, the young woman changed her major to business, relocated to New Jersey, and transferred to Upsala College where she earned her BA degree in business administration. She later received an MBA, with distinction, from the New York Institute of Technology. However, her desire to make a difference for others never faded. Softley worked for a couple of years in the health care field, then started her long career in higher education. In 1979, she came to PCCC where she served for eight years as assistant director of financial aid. In 1986, Softley was named director of EOF.
Dedication to EOF
“In EOF, the students we’re targeted to serve are those who initially were not expected to succeed in college,” explained Softley. In her early years on the job, she was dismayed by the number of EOF students who did not complete their academic programs. “Now, most of them go on to four-year colleges and earn a degree,” she declares with pride. “It’s a real achievement for them, and that’s what keeps me here.”
Among her many accomplishments as EOF director, Softley won recognition for initiating an innovative summer program that permitted EOF students to take classes on the PCCC campus while residing at the nearby suburban campus of Montclair State University.“We wanted to change their environment while carefully supervising their studies,” Softley explained. Though eventually discontinued because of cost, the program was considered a success had been cited as a “Model Design for EOF.”
Professional Associations and Memberships
In addition to her service on numerous PCCC committees, Softley also served for more than 20 years on the executive board of the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund Professional Association, where she has held the positions of Legislative Committee Chair, Public Relations Officer, Treasurer, Vice President and President. She also served on the Governor’s Higher Education Responsive Team (2002-2005), Student Assistance Board’s Technical Review Group (1993-1996), and the CHE/EOF Board of Directors (1999-2005).
Awards and Honors
Over the years, the administrator has won numerous awards, including: Outstanding Young Woman of America (1985), New Jersey Educational Opportunity Professional Association Executive Board Exemplary Performance Award (1992), PCCC Employee of the Year (1993), and Distinguished Women of Achievement Award from the College Preparatory Incentive Program, Inc. (2003).
In September 2009, Softley was chosen as one of 25 inaugural members of the Academy of Leaders established by the Martin Luther King Jr., Commission of New Jersey to honor professionals from all walks of life whose service and dedication exemplify the ideals and vision of Dr. King. “I am honored and humbled,” she said.
Multicultural Interests and Inspirations
With her keen interest in other cultures, Softley thrives on the diversity at PCCC campus. “Where I’m from in the Midwest, diversity was practically zero,” she said. “Here there are at least 49 different ethnicities I encounter every day.” The well-traveled administrator cherishes, in particular, memories of her trip with the Institute for the Study of African Culture, Inc. an organization that promotes cultural exploration in Africa.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Softley recalls. Her tour group stayed in Dakar and toured through Gambia and southern Senegal. “We even went to a village and met the chief at his compound,” she said. But it was a visit to the slave house in Dakar that made the strongest impression on her. “It was very touching for all of us,” said Softley. “My great-grandfather had been a slave, so I found this part of the trip very moving.”
Today, the administrator finds fulfillment in helping to liberate EOF students from limiting circumstances. As for her decision to reject a legal career, Softley says, “This is where I belong. I found what I didn’t think a law career would give me…the real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Posted October 2009