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College of Arts and Sciences

‘First, but never alone’: Cornell joins first-generation initiative

By: Daniel Aloi
Cornell Chronicle
March 10, 2020

Cornell has been recognized for its commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes for its first-generation students.

The Center for First-Generation Student Success has chosen Cornell to participate in its 2020-21 First-Gen Forward cohort. Supporting higher education institutions implementing evidence-based practices and breaking down barriers impeding student success, the center is an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and The Suder Foundation.

NASPA announced March 2 that Cornell was accepted into First-Gen Forward’s second cohort.

“[Cornell is] continuing to make investments in the preservation and creation of opportunities for low-income and first-generation students,” said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, in support of the First-Gen Forward application. “This is a commitment that shapes the Cornell University experience for all.”

First-generation college students are defined as students whose parents or guardian did not obtain a four-year undergraduate degree. The Office of First-Generation and Low-Income Student Support at 626 Thurston Ave., a unit within the Dean of Students Office in the division of Student and Campus Life, reported in 2019 that 13.4% of students in the Class of 2023 self-identified as first-generation.

The designation as a First-Gen Forward institution “honors the sustained commitment and work of the Cornell students, faculty, staff and alumni who have given their time, energy and resources to empower and support our increasingly diverse first-generation student population,” said Shakima M. Clency, the Peggy J. Koenig ’78 Associate Dean of Students for Student Empowerment and First-Generation and Low-Income Student Support.

“Although Cornell is fragmented and decentralized,” she said, “as we gathered information to complete the application, it was exciting to see the many programs supporting these students, including POSSE, the McNair Scholars Program, Upward Bound, the Higher Education Opportunity Programs and the student-run First Generation Student Union.”

Cornell has expanded its support over the past two years to include: the creation of the Kessler Presidential Scholars program; new initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences such as advising seminars, the Pathways Internship Program and Summer Scholars Institute; a mentor program for first-year students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the First-Generation Alumni Summit held at Cornell Tech; Voices Carry, a dinner and discussion group fostering reflection on the first-generation experience; and the First Generation and Low Income Graduate Student Association, formed in 2019. 

“I’ve seen so much change in the first-gen experience at Cornell in just the four years alone that I’ve been here. As a freshman, a lot of the programs we have now did not exist,” said Luz Martes ’20, an economics and sociology major from New York City.

First-generation students networked with their peers and shared resources, experiences, challenges and best practices with students and administrators from other institutions at the sixth annual 1vyG Conference, held Feb. 28-March 1 on the Cornell campus. More than 240 first-generation and lower-income students and 50 administrators from 25 institutions participated.

“I wanted to share what we have created with other institutions to learn from each other,” said Natalia De La Caridad Hernandez ’21, who co-chaired the event with Elia Morelos ’21. “Hosting 1vyG reminded me of the most beautiful aspect of our community: we are first, but never alone.”

Clency said the NASPA designation “will inspire more students, faculty, alumni and staff to identify as first-gen; encourage support for existing programs, and foster greater collaboration across departments and programs for first-generation students.

“We’re committed to achieving greater diversity and providing access to the full Cornell experience,” she said. “Joining First-Gen Forward is a unique opportunity to build upon our existing programs, explore solutions to institutional challenges, and generate new knowledge alongside a community of professionals.”

Cornell also will benefit from professional development and community-building experiences, engagement with peer and aspirational institutions, and access to the research and resources of the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

“Through the application process, it was evident that Cornell is not only taking steps to serve first-generation students, but is prepared to make a long-term commitment and employ strategies for significant scaling and important advances in the future,” said Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the center.

“As a First-Gen Forward university, Cornell will have the opportunity to contribute to and learn from NASPA’S Center for First-Generation Student Success and a national cohort of peer institutions who are committed to exploring the unique challenges our first-gen students may encounter. This will likely include conversations about the ways in which we support students not only during their time at Cornell, but before they arrive on campus and well after they walk across the graduation stage and become members of an engaged alumni network,” said Wendy Gilmore-Fitzgerald, adviser for New York State Opportunity Programs in the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives.

First-Gen Forward efforts at Cornell will be led by Clency, Gilmore-Fitzgerald and Liz Millhollen ’05, associate director of Upward Bound in the Cornell Public Service Center.

To be involved or learn more, contact Shakima M. Clency or email firstgenforward@cornell.edu.

Read the article in the Cornell Chronicle.