Being an ardent fan of fiction has led George DeFendini ’22 to worlds and cultures very different from his own in Queens, N.Y. — even to galaxies far, far away and now to Ithaca.
From a character in one of his “Star Wars” reading adventures, he says he’s found his own mantra: “I don’t want to live an ordinary life.” As the first student from his high school to attend an Ivy League University and the first in his family to attend college, he’s already on his way to that goal.
And he has a new “family” of friends to support him at Cornell after taking part in the Summer Scholars Institute from July 29 to Aug. 4, one of three new initiatives for first generation students started by the College of Arts & Sciences this year.
“We’re already planning to go together to the first-generation events during orientation and to see Cornell Cinema movies together,” said Cole Romero ’22, whose hometown is Patterson, Calif. “We just got really close.”
This year’s institute brought 19 students to campus for a week filled with reading and writing workshops and activities related to academic and career development, health and wellness and financial literacy, said Paul Sulzer, the advising dean who designed and coordinated the program.
They also spent time talking about their first-generation experiences and expectations.
“We shared our personal experiences and were able to vent our emotions,” said Angie Luna Menjivar ’22. “We realized that we have different experiences but we’re all similar in many ways.”
They also met faculty, staff and students, learned about Cornell’s rich history and traditions, and explored Taughannock Falls State Park. The other new first-generation supports this year include small group advising seminars for first-year students, and a summer internship preparation program for sophomores. Participants of the yearlong internship program attend workshops and meet regularly with career development counselors to secure a funded, career-enhancing experience for the summer after sophomore year.
“We’re all bonded by our experiences as first generation students and most of us are also bilingual,” said Jonathan Gomez Barrientos ’22 from Long Island, who plans to study astrophysics. “The Summer Scholars Institute was a chance to slow things down a bit and really get an introduction to campus.”
Victoria Harris ’22 said she chose Cornell because she was looking for a more rural campus and was awed by Cornell’s scenery, as well as its classics department. As part of her evening writing assignments during the week, Harris wrote about wanting to be a bridge for her parents, who were born in Guyana and don’t speak English well.
“When I meet new people, I sometimes don’t know what to say or what to do, but everyone here was so friendly and supportive,” she said. “And all of us have a variety of interests and issues to talk about, so conversations never got dry or boring.”
After heading home for a few days, the students say they feel ready to tackle orientation when they return next week. Their families? They might not be there yet.
“My dad is my biggest cheerleader because he never went to college. He wants me to do everything, try everything,” DeFendini said. His mom, though, is dealing with an empty nest and missing him terribly, he said. “But they know I’m starting the next chapter of my life.”