April 29, 2013

Cornell Initiatives Aid Low-Income Students

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Many first-generation and low-income students struggle to overcome “deceptively small barriers” like family pressures, self-doubt and social strains. Cornell is among the list of colleges that have bolstered new initiatives to better serve this population of the student body, administrators and students said.

A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity, said it is common for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to worry about fitting in at Cornell and supporting their families at home. These students may have concerns about whether they belong on campus and how Cornell may be making them different from their friends from high school, Miller said.

“Being here and second guessing, ‘Do I belong here?’ can have an effect on your academic performance,” Miller said. “If you’re not sure you fit in or have the background for your major or particular courses, sometimes that sets you up to not do as well because you’re coming at it already worried, instead of coming at it with confidence.”

Two years ago, Cornell founded the Office of Academic Initiatives to help first-generation, low-income and racially underrepresented students overcome some of these obstacles. OADI is only in its second year of operations but has shown significant growth, Miller said.

During the spring of 2012 — after only one semester — 1,500 students came through OADI’s door, according to Miller. One semester later, in the fall of 2012, this number tripled, and the office served around 4,500 students, he added.

According to Miller, there are two types of programs available to help support first-generation, low-income and racially underrepresented students: opportunity and success programs. Opportunity programs, such as New York State Opportunity Programs and the Gates Millenium Scholars Program, ensure that students have equal access to a college education. Success programs, like the Pre-Professional Program and Summer Research Opportunity Fund, help students take advantage of opportunities so they can achieve academically and prepare for graduate school and future careers.

“Our goal is not just retention. We want students on the dean’s list, winning fellowships, having high grade point averages and performing at a similar level to all students at Cornell,” Miller said.

Through OADI, Edwin Rosendo ’15 said he was able to have a successful transition into college.

Rosendo, a first-generation college student, was invited to be a member of the Higher Education Opportunity Program, a partnership between New York State and higher-level educational institutions that provides support for economically and educationally disadvantaged students.

According to Rosendo, the program helped him and many other students by providing counseling and other types of support at Cornell.

“We had mandatory counseling during freshman year, and through that, they helped me adjust to life at Cornell,” Rosendo said. “And then, of course, the largest overarching support is the financial support, in terms of being able to come to this school when it wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.”

Both Miller and Rosendo, in addition to other students involved in OADI, attributed OADI’s success to its ability to provide students with an opportunity to learn from their peers in a relaxed and comfortable environment.

“It’s not so much the resources that OADI has, it’s more the people that they have in the office,” said James Sparkman ’13, an underrepresented minority student. “They know so much about what is going on at Cornell. You can have all the resources available on campus in one place, but if you don’t have people who know how to use them or how to point you to something else, then then they’re not efficient.”

Miller echoed Sparkman’s sentiments, saying many students opt themselves out of many opportunities and programs because they are simply not aware of the programs available.

There are many students who do not have enough guidance and would have pursued different areas of study or became involved in different clubs if they had a mentor to show them the ropes, Miller said.

According to Rosendo, the next step in supporting first-generation and low-income students is to reach out to a broader community and spread the word.

Not enough students know about the resources that Cornell and OADI have to offer and as a result, they miss out on a wide range of opportunities, Rosendo said.

Original Author: Alexa Davis