While being a first generation, low income student at Cornell has never been easy, this experience has only grown more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To address the loneliness and logistical challenges affecting so many of their peers, the First Generation Student Union leadership at Cornell are working to make a guide to resources at Cornell for these students.
“The most important part about the guide though is that it’s a lasting resource. Events, you can come to the info session, it’s an hour long, and everyone who came got the information,” said Caroline Doglio ’22, events chair for FGSU. “The idea of the guide is that it will be a resource for the rest of Cornell history.”
Resources to help FGLI students find a community and navigate their first year on campus are more critical than ever during COVID-19 because the pandemic has made it harder to find resources and connect with other first generation students, according to Henessy Pineda ’21, FGSU president.
“When I was a freshman, I was able to connect with upperclassmen and ask them for help, ask them for resources and they would show me around,” Pineda said. “Freshmen don’t have that anymore.”
For many FGLI students, including Rafael Bitanga ’23, the pandemic created unexpected costs and housing changes that have been a challenge.
Bitanga applied to stay in dorm housing through the end of the 2020 spring semester because taking classes at home would be difficult, due to his mother’s home business, but was denied this accommodation. He first stayed in the hallway of a friend’s apartment, then in the basement of a fraternity house and finally in the basement of a local community member.
“As a first gen I think COVID really just showed that I have to even be more resourceful than my counterparts,” Bitanga said. “The resources, though there are a lot, it still feels limited during the times of need, especially in emergencies.”
Even before the pandemic, being an FGLI student at Cornell has been difficult. Gabriela Mino ’21 has faced challenges while navigating financial aid throughout her years at Cornell.
“That’s how the first gen experience is. You don’t know what you’re getting into, or what you’re doing, and sometimes you think you are doing the right thing but you have to take extra steps, more than other people,” Mino said. “I can’t ask my parents hey, how does this work? It’s all up to you and sometimes that can be hard.”
Doglio, Pineda and Bitanga all mentioned dealing with isolation as they navigated what Doglio described as a “culture of wealth” on campus. Mino had an easier time finding fellow FGLI students because she found friends during the pre-freshman summer program and by living in the Latino Living Center, but said others may have had different experiences.
While Mino is glad that her FGLI peers are making this guide, she also thinks Cornell has a responsibility to better communicate its own resources to students.
“As a university if it’s ‘any person, any study,’ then any person should be able to navigate campus,” Mino said. “That should be the university’s job.”
Cornell FGSU leadership was inspired by a similar effort at the University of Michigan, and encouraged all those who would like to contribute to the guide to reach out to FGSU leadership. The guide will include information about employment, scholarships and finances, as well as help finding affordable housing, textbooks, clothing, food, and study abroad experiences.
Pineda’s goals for FGSU include raising awareness among high school students in underserved communities about the possibility of coming to Cornell, hosting educational events to make the University more accessible for fellow FGLI students, and celebrating their accomplishments.
Going beyond logistics, other sections of the guide will focus on resources for students at the intersection of other marginalized identities, as well as advice for finding mentorship, community and mental health support.
Mino is proud to be a first generation student, and wants her peers to recognize the contributions of current and past first generation, low income students. Pineda agreed with her, and hopes the resources FGSU leadership compiles can help the community she is so proud to be a part of.
“Cornell would not be Cornell, if not for the first-gen community,” Pineda said. “I’ve met so many first-gen students at Cornell, and I see leaders, I see individuals who are striving for change, who are making an impact.”