The undergraduate student chapter of the Cornell Center for Health Equity is organizing affinity groups to support and build community among BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities. The groups will officially begin meeting in October.
Raksha Krishnan ’22 and Simone Lee ’22, two of the three co-presidents of the CCHEq undergraduate chapter, explained that for students with marginalized identities, the challenges of adjusting to Cornell can be compounded by the additional stresses associated with fitting in and gaining a sense of community.
These obstacles are exactly what Krishnan and Lee said they hope to address with affinity groups, spaces where individuals of a shared identity can meet to discuss their experiences as Cornell students, voice their concerns and offer support to one another.
These CCHEq affinity groups will be built on a mentor-mentee framework, Krishnan said.
“Our program is very customized to what needs you might have,” Krishnan said. “A lot of mentor programs can feel so organized that some students may not feel a sense of belonging. The biggest thing we want to make apparent is that you belong here, and you matter.”
Krishnan and Lee said their own experiences as first-year students, as well as conversations they had with new students, motivated them to start these affinity groups.
As the first student from her high school to attend Cornell, Lee recalled feeling lost and overwhelmed at first, an experience she has found common among her peers.
“I’ve gotten to know new students and transfers who will ask me how they can find people within our community on campus,” Lee said. “That support group [can be] hard to initially build.”
Beyond drawing from their experiences, Krishnan and Lee have also used data to better understand the challenges facing new students, particularly those with marginalized identities.
“Simone and I worked closely with our members to analyze the mental health review reports to understand what was affecting students, and how we can help improve conditions for them,” Krishnan said. They found that imposter syndrome was a common obstacle for new students.
This issue was apparent in the 2019 Cornell Undergraduate Experience Survey, which reported that 25 percent of Black students surveyed said they felt out of place on campus “very often,” compared to 11 percent of their white peers.
While Krishnan acknowledged the efforts of the Cornell administration in fostering spaces for conversations about the challenges fitting in with different identities, she also said she felt these programs can fall short of what students need.
Krishnan and Lee reflected on their experiences in the required Intergroup Dialogue Project session they attended as first-year students, in particular recalling the awkwardness that they felt discussing their individual experiences.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk about the issues you face with people who have seen [similar] struggles,” Krishnan said.
She explained that the affinity group program will be centered on groups where mentors and mentees have a shared identity to create a supportive and honest dialogue.
Krishnan also explained the importance of intersectionality in developing their program, and emphasized that students will be able to join multiple affinity groups, both as mentors and mentees.
While the program is only just launching, Krishnan and Lee said they hope to organize more social events, including a picnic for mentors and mentees. They also plan to collaborate with other organizations on campus, including the South Asian Council, the Black Bio-medical and Technical Association and Haven, to connect students with more community support.
Krishnan and Lee said they see the affinity program as connected with the broader goal of CCHEq, which uses research, education, service and advocacy to mitigate health disparities across diverse communities.
Lee cited results from Cornell’s Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences surveys, which have shown that Black, Hispanic and Asian students are more likely to report having experienced mental health challenges that impacted academic performance relative to their peers. These disparities were highest among Black and Hispanic students, and have been consistently reported in surveys since 2005.
Krishnan and Lee said they hope their program can create additional spaces of support for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities.