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Cherie Lias first turned to the University at Buffalo’s Educational Opportunity Center in 1995 to prepare for the GED exam, and she returned for the registered medical assistant program last fall after being out of work for four years.

The Buffalo resident can’t say enough about the value of the center’s career-boosting programs, but she readily admits that its longtime home in downtown Buffalo is showing its age.

That’s why Lias is thrilled that the EOC is moving this summer to brand-new digs on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“The new building is awesome. It’s state of the art. It’s airy. It’s wonderful,” said Lias, 48, of Buffalo.

UB this morning is unveiling the new $26 million, 68,000-square-foot EOC facility at Ellicott and Goodell streets.

Officials say the new structure will better serve the 1,900 low-income students who receive vocational training and exam-preparation courses through the EOC each year, with enhanced technology and a foothold on the Medical Campus to boost the center’s allied health programs.

“To see it come to fruition is really nice,” said Debra E.J. Thompson, the EOC’s director of instructional services, a 25-year employee who helped in the building’s planning.

UB’s EOC – one of a network of centers across the state – has been operated out of 465 Washington St. since it opened 40 years ago.

Its 80 or 90 faculty and staff members serve nearly 2,000 students annually who don’t pay tuition but must meet income, academic and state residency requirements to be eligible.

The EOC prepares students for college and civil service exams and offers certification courses for dental assistants, medical technicians and a variety of other jobs.

Lias entered the medical assistant program at the urging of her daughter, Tierra Jones, who went through it a year earlier, and she hopes to get a job in a doctor’s office or at a hospital.

Lias has been out of work since she was overwhelmed by the violent deaths of two of her sons – Antonio Jones, who was shot, and Ernest Jones II, who was stabbed – just months apart in 2008 and 2009. Returning to the EOC, she said, “was my way of getting my life back together.”

She gave an address at her graduation ceremony last month, and she will speak at today’s news conference.

The cutting-edge technology built into the new facility, including improved wireless and broadband Internet, is the biggest change from Washington Street, said Julius Gregg Adams, the EOC’s executive director.

Each classroom will have an interactive whiteboard, connected to a computer, and the library will be more digitally focused. Adams said the enhanced technology will let the EOC explore offering online courses. “The goal is to move in that direction,” he said.

The location of the new building should boost the center’s allied health programs, which are meant to position students to find work at the Medical Campus.

As an example of the links between the center and the campus, EOC faculty members teach a class at Roswell Park Cancer Institute on introductory Spanish for health care workers that serves EOC students and institute employees. “Part of my job is reaching out to Kaleida, Catholic Health, Roswell Park, to see if there are ways we can partner,” Adams said. Beyond geography, just being in a new building will mean a lot to EOC students, said Thompson, who worked as an part-time instructor and a full-time faculty member before taking her administrative position with the center. “It’s such an attitude change,” she said.

The new building at 555 Ellicott St. is linked through a glass atrium to the UB Downtown Gateway Building, 77 Goodell St., which opened in 2009 in the former M. Wile building and houses programs including the school’s Office of Government and Community Relations.

UB announced plans for the new EOC facility in 2007, touting it as a major investment in downtown Buffalo, and construction began in 2010. The university has since opened a Clinical and Translational Research Center on the Medical Campus and announced plans to move its Medical School there.

The EOC will move its staff and programs to the energy-efficient building designed by Holt Architects in stages, starting later this month and wrapping up in August.

“As we move forward in building a strong, knowledge-based economy in our region,” UB President Satish K. Tripathi said in a statement, “this state-of-the-art collaborative learning environment will play a key role in expanding the educational and vocational opportunities that will come with this innovation economy.”

email: swatson@buffnews.com