For SUNY Oswego senior criminal justice major Kyaw Klay Jr., the Norman R. McConney Jr. Award for Student Excellence recognizes a road of overcoming obstacles, current excellence and transformative plans for the future. 

One of 45 statewide recipients in SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) to earn this prestigious honor, Klay recalled being “surprised and thrilled” when he heard about winning. 

“I’ve overcome so many obstacles and I had so many chances to fail but I kept on moving forward and trying to do better each day,” Klay said. “I was very excited about this achievement.”

Klay chose SUNY Oswego because of the good reputation of its criminal justice program and his desire to give back by working in law enforcement. 

“I was always very passionate about helping people and I’ve always wanted to be a police officer,” Klay said. “Growing up in the City of Syracuse, I had mentors who were police officers and they inspired me to become a police officer. The City of Syracuse has given me so many opportunities and I want to give back to the community as a police officer to make people feel safe and secure.”

Nominator Joey Tse, director of SUNY Oswego’s EOP as well as Klay’s advisor in the program, said he exemplifies the spirit of the award, which recognizes “outstanding EOP students for their academic excellence and strength in overcoming significant personal obstacles throughout their lives.” 

Klay has already begun training at the Syracuse Regional Police Academy, with an expected September 2022 graduation. His future plans include not only graduate school but a desire to become chief of police to provide leadership in the field of law enforcement –- addressing the importance of preventing racial and other discrimination.

“The only way it is going to stop is for someone to step up to try to change it,” Klay said. “I want to try to change it.”

Inspirational story

Klay’s family immigrated to the United States from a Thai refugee camp when he was 9 years old. He settled in Syracuse with his father, mother and four siblings, with another brother born in the United States. The fourth of six children, Klay became the translator and go-between for his family. 

He started making an impact in petitioning and convincing the Syracuse City School District to lower the distance students have to live to be eligible to ride the school bus in the interest of safety –- including for him and his friends dealing with violence while walking to school. 

“He thought that no kid should be afraid to go to school because of the fear of being beat up and hurt on the way to school,” Tse said.

Tse noticed Klay as “a natural quiet leader” from the start of the EOP summer program in 2018.

“Other summer program students would look up to him and seek his assistance,” Tse remembered. “He befriended many of the other students. He wanted to be a Summer Program Peer Leader and wanted to take on leadership opportunities and give back to help other students.” Tse appreciated this but also recommended Klay for the Synergy Leadership Internship Program in Syracuse for summer 2019.

Since then, Klay has had to overcome personal health issues as well as those of his mother, who passed away in April 2021 after battling cancer. Along the way, he continued to excel in the classroom even as he accompanied his mother to her appointments and treatments and took care of his younger siblings.

Through all his challenges and accomplishments, Klay knows EOP has been an important area of support.

“EOP provided me with many resources and opportunities that were crucial to my accomplishments,” Klay said. “EOP prepared me for college and raised my level of confidence as a scholar. As a student coming from a minimum-wage household, EOP also provided me with the scholarship and financial grants that I need to attend college. I wouldn’t be where I am without EOP.”

An April 14 ceremony honored these students and celebrated the spirit of the award’s namesake, as McConney was among the architects of EOP and a tireless champion of youth empowerment. SUNY Interim Chancellor Deborah F. Stanley, the former longtime SUNY Oswego president, applauded recipients and all those who helped them attain their accomplishments.

“The students we celebrate today have their own story on how they got to SUNY, but they are unified by their incredible perseverance in pursuit of their academic dreams,” Stanley said. “Despite personal hardships, these individuals are driving forward to change the world.”

For more information on Oswego's EOP, visit the program website.