Release Date: June 1, 2016
BUFFALO, N.Y. – A registered medical assistant living out her mother’s mantra and a licensed dental/anesthesia assistant who overcame an “estranged household” are the latest alumni success stories recognized by the University at Buffalo’s Educational Opportunity Center.
Vilma Quinones — whose mother’s message of self-reliance served as her life rallying point — and Carrie Penna – who once lived lavishly but then raised an infant and toddler on her own — were honored during the center’s inaugural alumni dinner held on May 13 at the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Center at 555 Ellicott St.
Quinones received the UBEOC 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award, while Penna was recognized as the 2016 recipient of the Arthur O. Eve Education and Community Service Award.
Quinones and Penna represent the accomplishments of other EOC alumni honored at what administrators say will be an annual event. The dinner was designed to share the stories of successful and inspiring UBEOC graduates, whose “redemption stories” constitute a steady and dramatic legacy.
“At the First Annual UBEOC Alumni Dinner, we had alumni representing over 40 years of student involvement and success,” says Julius Gregg Adams, UBEOC executive director. “I am proud to say that our students, past and present, understand the importance of giving back, reconnecting and providing role models for those who will come after them.”
Quinones and Penna were just two of those role models who gathered for the dinner, attended by alumni who graduated from the 1970s through 2015, and their guests. Their stories are typical of how individuals who may not have had access to educational and self-improvement opportunities respond with dramatic results when they find a concerned and effective advocate.
Born in Puerto Rico, Quinones moved to Buffalo in 1989 with her husband, daughter and son. She worked as a part-time housekeeper while her husband worked on the farms.
Quinones enrolled and graduated from UBEOC’s College Preparation Program in 1994. She then enrolled in Erie Community College, studying office technology while working part time in customer service at M&T Bank. She became a full-time employee upon graduation.
Two years later, Quinones was working in the adjustments office at Marine Midland Bank when she was recognized by bank officials for saving a million-dollar account.
With three children, two with special needs, Quinones learned sign language at the Early Childhood Learning Center and studied ADHD to help her respond to her children’s needs. Knowing she had another career calling, she returned to EOC to study health care, enrolling in the registered medical assistant program.
“You must feed yourself and realize that food rots if it stays on the shelf uneaten,” she says, evoking her mother’s words. “I took everything EOC had stocked in their pantry. I didn’t let anything go to waste.”
Quinones’ impressive allied health career includes working as a registered medical assistant at Buffalo Medical Group, training UBMD physicians in emergency medical records, performing clerical and clinical duties for Zenith Medical, and assisting in internal medicine, pediatrics and ob-gyn for Neighborhood Health Services.
She presently assists in muscular and skeletal pain management and brain/spinal cord rehabilitation for Academic Buffalonias in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. She also serves as UBEOC’s internship liaison at that office, “feeding” current UBEOC students in their professional pursuits.
Penna’s “estranged household” as a child led her to live on her own when she was 16. She married a businessman, had children and lived what she described as a “lavish” lifestyle.
“I had it all: big suburban home, in-ground pool, the works,” Penna says.
But she soon realized she didn’t have it all. Her life took a drastic turn, she says, due to circumstances beyond her control.
“I lost the house. I lost everything. I had no family support on either side.” Penna says. “I had an infant and a toddler, and I was basically, once again, living on my own.”
Giving birth on New Year’s Day and divorcing six months later became turning points in her life. So was the day she sought out assistance from Catholic Charities. While there she saw the flyer for the UBEOC Dental Assistant Program.
“Having two young children and then qualifying for public services,” Penna says, “I decided then and there to enroll.”
Penna became an “A” student, earning a top clinical internship slot. She was hired one week after graduation at Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery Associates of Western New York, where she worked for 16 years as a licensed dental and anesthesia assistant.
Happily remarried and now with three children, Penna credits the EOC with empowering her with enough confidence to earn her licensure and make good decisions, both professionally and personally. She shows her gratitude for the education and support services she received by volunteering at Catholic Charities’ women’s shelter, Cookies for Cancer and One Warm Coat, agencies she has been associated with for 14 years.
“Bad things that happen can lead to a stepping stone to a better life,” Penna says. “Seek it out. Find your purpose. I did at EOC.”
The alumni dinner showcased the accomplishments of the UBEOC graduates and hopefully encouraged others to emulate their path, according to Margot Barrett Keysor, alumni affairs and student development administrator.
In addition to Quinones and Penna, other EOC alumni received awards for their service, professional accomplishments and volunteer work in the community. Recognitions were bestowed to alumni who have dedicated their careers as UB and UBEOC faculty and professional staff members. Also honored were a veteran who “re-careered” at EOC, an alumnus who continues to serve on the EOC Advisory Council and alumni who have volunteered at numerous EOC functions, including the annual Strengthening Families event.
“Three-hundred and fifty-nine degrees. That’s the impact this type of event has on EOC and our alumni,” Keysor says. “Our students and graduates continue to strive to come full circle. It’s the one degree difference, though, that keeps them true to the EOC mission of ‘lifelong learning and self-empowerment.’”
Those interested in applying or learning more about UBEOC can call the admissions office at 716-645-1900, or check out the EOC website.
Academic programs include English as a second language, high school equivalency and college preparation and allied health programming. EOC also offers recognized industry certifications in registered medical assisting, certified dental assisting, medical billing and coding, patient services technician specialist and Microsoft Office specialist, among others.