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By Emily Steves, ’15
Margaret T. Bryner sits back in her chair in her cluttered office on the Reilly Center’s second floor and closes her eyes.
“Oh my heavens,” she says, slowly. “These are the highs as you work with people who are struggling.”
Minutes earlier, in an excited burst of energy, Bryner had stood up to hug colleague Bridget Kehrer. They’d both just learned that Makeda Loney, a St. Bonaventure University senior and one of their own, had been chosen as the student speaker for the 2014 Commencement ceremony.
“We didn’t do it for her,” says Bryner, still reveling in the good news. “We gave her the opportunities.”
As director of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at the university, Bryner keeps each program student in line academically and socially. The program provides schooling for academically and financially disadvantaged students, funded through the New York State Department of Education and St. Bonaventure University.
The program requires a 2.0 grade-point average that Bryner, who acts as the “bad guy,” enforces. One must apply for the aid and then, if accepted, abide by the rules. Students who fail to comply face serious consequences.
“Either you’re getting kicked out or you better beg for your scholarship back,” says Loney, a Brooklyn native. During her freshman year, Loney let her grades slip, doing just enough to stay off academic probation. But her GPA that semester still wasn’t good enough for Bryner.
“They called me into the office and said, ‘We know you’re smart, we know you’re capable,’” Loney says. “They definitely push you to be the best you can possibly be.”
A native of Bradford, Pa., Bryner says she bases her no-nonsense premise on accountability.
“I set the goal high,” says Bryner. “Going into the workforce, you have to be the best of the best and hopefully you will beat out your best friend if you’re both applying for the job.”
Bryner began with the university in 1975 as an instructor in physical education and the coach for its Division III volleyball team. When offered a counseling position with HEOP in 1982 during the program’s second year, Bryner accepted.
Throughout her 30-plus years, Bryner has had to adjust her tough-but-fair demeanor to fit different generations’ mentalities and needs, but otherwise hasn’t wavered.
The HEOP program makes it possible for graduates like Buffalo native Eboni Hayes, ’98, to see life from a different angle. Hayes says growing up was challenging.
“(The HEOP program) made it possible for me to attend Bonaventure, coming from where I came from,” says Hayes. “Bryner stayed on me to make sure my transition was smooth. She let me know I was picked for the program for a reason and she made me feel special that way.”
Hayes began freshman year as a psychology major. But, after encouragement from Lee Coppola, the former dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Hayes decided to pursue her talents in writing. Now, she applies her B.A. in journalism and her M.A. in integrated marketing communications to her work as a marketing strategist with Envisage Marketing Communications in Buffalo.
“The program made me work hard,” she says, “It kept me in check.”
Along with the GPA requirement, HEOP students must complete a minimum of eight hours of community service per semester. Many, like Freddie Alvarez, ’14, of the Bronx, see that number as a floor, not a ceiling.
“Get out and do something. Give back. Pay it forward. I think those are important,” says Bryner.
Alvarez says he averages 15-20 hours of service each semester, doing work with the Warming House, the Cattaraugus County SPCA and with Mt. Irenaeus.
Diana Olson, ’05, continues with the volunteer work ethic the HEOP program and Bryner have instilled in her.
“I always try to give back what she and the program have given me,” says Olson.
To get acclimated to life at Bonaventure, HEOP sponsors a five-week summer orientation for its incoming freshmen. Olson, a fifth-grade teacher at Ellicottville Central School, returns in the summer to help out, just as she did as a mentor to the summer program as an undergrad.
“I often will drive the van to different events that the students have to go to,” she says. “I sit and talk to them about my own experiences, so it’s nice.”
Because of the cost of higher education, Olson had never considered attending the university despite its close proximity to her hometown, Great Valley, N.Y.
Olson now boasts a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in childhood literacy, but says, “I definitely wouldn’t have gone to college if it weren’t for the HEOP program.”
Appreciation for Bryner’s intensity comes with time and, over the years, she has faced serious rough patches with students. She refers back to one student in particular whenever tensions run dangerously high.
“We would have some very heated discussions because of her off-campus job,” says Bryner. “I’d say, ‘I don’t care if you have to work, I realize that, but you have to get this paper done.’”
In the end, the student discovered an area she had extreme passion for based on her own experiences: social work. In graduate school, she maintained top grades.
“There’s been a number of those throughout the years who turned it around and made it,” says Bryner. “And then you have the other ones who sail through.”
Pamela (Say) Witter admits she struggled as an undergraduate in the HEOP program. “I think in some ways I was a tough case at times,” she says.
A semester before finishing her degree in journalism, Witter, an Olean native, decided to leave to work at Community Bank in her hometown.
“One professor, Denny Wilkins, and Bryner really kind of stayed after me and insisted I come back and finish,” Witter says.
With about a year of work under her belt, Witter says Wilkins showed up at the bank to see her. “He basically said, ‘When are you enrolling and when will you be back?’” says Witter. “Even just getting through the process and making sure I finished what I started; they didn’t let me walk away from it.”
Witter graduated in 2001 and now works at Trocaire College in Buffalo as its vice president for development and community engagement. She still maintains contact with Bryner.
“I can say that right on into adulthood, once I started my career and really started to see success, she’s been the biggest cheerleader,” Witter says. “It’s amazing, the heart she has for this kind of thing.”
Come the fall of 2014, a new Bryner will take charge, walking in shoes that took more than 30 years to fill.
“I’m tired,” Bryner admits. “I’m going to live life more. I’ve always felt I’ve lived every day to the fullest, but when you’re putting in many hours a day –– eight plus –– you have to wiggle it in. And I’ve always wiggled it in.”
She plans to travel, work in her garden and make more time for exercise. She says the time has come for a new person to take her place, one who is younger and can propose fresh, new ideas for the students.
But Loney and Alvarez can’t imagine a St. Bonaventure without Margaret Bryner, whose program has produced two of the last four Ideal Bonaventure Men (Thomas Waters Jr., 2011, and Paul Leonardo, 2014) and the last two student speakers at Commencement (Loney and Christel Mendez).
“I know the students are concerned,” Bryner says. “It’s very humbling because you do what you do… I did what I did because I thought it was,” she exhales and pauses, “important for them. They need to know how to be successful out in the real world, and you don’t learn that overnight. It takes years.”
Bryner leans forward in her chair, plucks a tissue from its box, leans back and brings it to her eyes.
“You require this, you require that, and you know it’s good for them and you know they’ll appreciate it later,” she says. “And, in particular, if they’ve never had that: someone who cared enough to require them to do this, this and this.”
“She helped me find myself,” says Hayes. “It’s the truth.”
“She’s been like a mother for us,” says Alvarez. “We’re all her kids.”
“My life would not be what it is today without people like Margaret Bryner,” says Witter.
(Emily Steves, ’15, of Collins, N.Y., just completed her junior year at St. Bonaventure, where she is majoring in journalism and mass communication.)
About the University: The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University cultivates graduates who are confident and creative communicators, collaborative leaders and team members, and innovative problem solvers who are respectful of themselves, others, and the diverse world around them. We are establishing pathways to internships, graduate schools and careers in the context of our renowned liberal arts tradition. Our students are becoming extraordinary.
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