November 28, 2017

GUEST ROOM | How First-Gens At Cornell Do Thanksgiving Break

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A few days ago while scrolling down my Facebook timeline, I came across this New York Times op-ed shared by the Women’s Resource Center’s page. The title intrigued me: “How First Generation College Students Do Thanksgiving Break.” I clicked the link and was pulled in by the first sentence: “In 1999, I had been a freshman in college in upstate New York for maybe two weeks…” Knowing full well that I’ve used the “Upstate New York” line many times myself, I knew the author was a Cornellian.

Reading through the article, I was struck by the similarities between Jennine Capó Crucet’s experience at Cornell and my own: Dr. Capó Crucet is a Latina, daughter of immigrants, and First-Gen college student who struggled to adjust to Cornell —  just like me. And truth is, I am still adjusting.

For the third year, I spent Thanksgiving break on campus. When asked why I didn’t go home, I often reply with “I just want to catch up on work so I’m not swamped when finals come.” But what I really mean is: “I’m too broke to go anywhere else, so here I am!” More often than not, I have been validated by friends who tell me, “the semester’s almost over anyways.” Meanwhile, I wish I could go home and see my family whom I haven’t seen since August.

In her op-ed, Dr. Capó Crucet captures what first-gens who attend colleges and universities far from home know too well:

“The breaks at Cornell made me see how my college hadn’t wholly anticipated someone like me there.”

This is a sentiment I have felt every single break.

My freshman year, I took the TCAT to the Ithaca mall with the only friend I knew who stayed over break. I bought pizza rolls and ramen to survive off for the four days the dining halls weren’t open. Netflix kept us company on an abnormally empty campus.The visible emptiness amplified my inner feelings of loneliness and sense of unbelonging I felt here.

But I wasn’t alone. Many people stay on campus over break. And yes, Dr. Capó Crucet is right, we all can find commonalities between our reasons for staying. Some of us are First Generation; some of us are low-income; some of us are international; some of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants. We belong here just as much as anyone else, but when I arrived on this campus, many of Cornell’s policies said otherwise.

However, as I reflect on changes I have seen on campus, I am confident that a freshman now will have a drastically better experience than I had three years ago, surviving on ramen and pizza rolls. This year, student groups organized the third annual university-wide Thanksgiving Dinner. This year, Anabel’s Grocery had a meal kit build event for the third year, and the first year inside the store. This year, dining halls were open and accepting meal swipes for the first time. In the spring, Cornell will hire a full-time staff member dedicated to First-Gen, Low-Income student initiatives under the Office of the Dean of Students.

These institutional improvements have happened slowly, but they happened because students built coalitions over their shared experiences and advocated for themselves and future students. They happened because students, former and current, have dedicated countless hours to negotiations with administrators. They happened because students have carved spaces for themselves, because as students, it is our duty to make Cornell wholly anticipate those who come after us.

This year, THIS is how First Generation College Students Do Thanksgiving Break at Cornell. And it is my hope that we continue working to make Cornell truly an institution for any person, over Thanksgiving break and throughout the year.


Mayra Valadez is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She is the vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Student Assembly, and is the president of the First Generation Student Union. She can be reached at [email protected].