March 8, 2016

GUEST ROOM | A Reflection on 2016 1vyG

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Last weekend, I was one of the many students who were given the opportunity of a lifetime of representing Cornell University, First in Class, in the 2016 Inter Ivy League First generation College Student Conference at Harvard University. It was a powerful, yet deeply emotional experience to meet 300 first gens like me who, despite being a student at an elite university, came from very humble backgrounds.

As we departed Cornell from the Office of Academic Diversity (OADI), memories of how it all started began to rewind in the corners of my mind. I transferred to Cornell from a community college in Maryland. While at community college, I was a full-time student and worked multiple jobs so I could pay for college and also help my family. In addition, I was also very involved on campus, especially the Phi Theta Kappa International Honors Society. Life was tough but with continuous support from my mentors in the community college, I was able to graduate with two associate degrees. While I was thinking that a four-year college was not even an option for me because of high tuition, I was surprised to know that I was one of the recipients of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, nation’s largest and probably, the most prestigious scholarship for low-income, high achieving students. This generous scholarship opened the doors of Cornell for me.

As I climbed up the slope from the West Campus every morning for my classes in the beautiful fall weather, I was incredibly excited for my new identity: a proud Cornellian. I was thankful for the opportunity given to me. But soon, I realized that many students did not come from the background like mine. It was not until I found OADI, I was comfortable with my transition to Cornell. It was OADI where I met with some of the kindest people at Cornell: William “Woodg” Horning, Ricardo Gonzalez, Sarah Anderson and Trey Waller. I was also fortunate to have Professor Cole Gilbert as my faculty advisor who himself was a transfer student during his college years. Despite being one of the top insect biologists in the world and the director of the undergraduate biology at Cornell, he was very welcoming, kind and had a big heart for transfer students. Without the support from these people and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, I would probably have been lost in the sea of students; I would have probably asked to myself if I really belonged here.

With those memories flashing back, I reached Harvard College where I stayed with my host student and another first gen from Brown University. The next morning, when I shook the hand of the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, I did not know that he was a Cornellian too. When I briefly mentioned him my story of being a first gen immigrant student, which later he mentioned in his speech while addressing the mass of outstanding first gen students from across the country, he said that it reminded him of the struggles of his parents as immigrants to this country. He could relate to the identity of being a first gen college student with many of us. In his speech, he showed how deeply he cared about making Harvard and the community a welcoming home for first gens.

Later that weekend, I met with Ted White and Anna Barros, two incredible first gens at Harvard who were also the co-chairs of the conference. Anna served as the President of the Harvard College First Generation College Student Union and Ted as the Vice-President. Their tireless work with many other students from Harvard had made this event a reality. In their speech, several times, they showed the genuine passion they possessed for a change, a wave to make the nation’s most elite colleges inclusive towards first gens.

In one of the group discussions, I joined my fellow First in Class members and mobilizers to talk about the ways in which we could bring the message home from the conference and use it to make Cornell more inclusive towards the first gen college students. Many students might not know about the Cornell First in Class, First Generation Student Union which seeks to support, encourage and empower first generation students on campus. We made agendas to reach out to those students on campus by coordinating with various colleges within the University and letting the incoming first gens know that we exist, and we care about them!

1vyG taught me to take pride in my first generation status and lead with the same passion as that of Anna Barros and Ted White to create a wave of change in our home: Cornell! I am excited about the new possibilities but it will only be possible with Cornell’s generous funding to OADI and First In Class initiatives. This is also an opportunity for Cornell to set an example, as it always has to be a home where any person can get instruction in any field of study. The question is, when that any person is a first gen from a low-income background, how much Cornell cares to reach out to these students, and go beyond its limits to create an environment where their background is not the predictor of their success.

Sagar Chapagain is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments may be sent to Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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