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Exploring career as a first-gen college student with Lisa Rangel ’92

By Kelly Kuehn, Student & Campus Life

Lisa Rangel ’92 faced an interesting duality when she came to Cornell. On one hand, she was excited to start her education in the Ivy League and join the tight-knit Cornellian community. On the other hand, she was afraid. Rangel was the first in her family to attend college and Cornell was so different from everything she knew. She was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Union City, New Jersey, having attended high school in Jersey City, and while she had good memories of her childhood, she knew she wanted to do more for herself and her community. 

Photo of Lisa Rangel '92 and her parents at a friend's Cornell graduation barbecue
Rangel and her parents at a friend's Cornell graduation barbecue. (Photo provided by Lisa Rangel)

And now, there she was, a first-year, first-gen student on Cornell’s campus. Would she fit in? Would Cornell be what she thought it would be? Did she have the tools to succeed? 

Questions like those ran through her mind as she adjusted to Cornell and its vast opportunities. Rather than let the fear of the unfamiliar take over, Rangel reached within and embraced the chance to learn about a new place. 

“I’ve always been a little obsessed to see places different than where I was raised,” Rangel says. “I even did my college essay on my obsession with out-of-state license plates at the time, and counting them, wondering what people’s stories were in the car.” 

She realized Cornell was the place to learn about different places and meet people from various walks of life. With that mindset, she embarked on a college career that helped her land her first job across the country and eventually launch her own business — but it didn’t come without some pivots along the way. 

Exploring uncertainty and new opportunities

With a tenacious inner drive and support from her family and high school, Rangel entered Cornell as an engineering major but soon realized it wasn’t the right fit. She switched to the Hotel School (now the Nolan School of Hotel Administration) after learning about it from her roommate, who was a “Hotelie” herself, and pursued a major in Property Management. 

After graduating in 1992, Rangel put her degree and experience to work in resorts and hotels in several areas including the British Virgin Islands and California. She never forgot her roots, though, and after several years of relocating for work, she moved to New York to be closer to home. 

Before she left the west coast, Rangel’s boss did something that changed the trajectory of her entire career. Her boss recommended she become a recruiter — a career Rangel never heard of before. Sure, it was a little risky, but she trusted her boss’ judgment and looked for recruiting jobs in New York. That decision to once again embrace the unfamiliar paid off; Rangel went on to a 13-year recruitment career and then next developed her own career-focused business working with executive job-seeking candidates, Chameleon Resumes, in 2009. 

The first-generation experience

Being a first-gen college student has changed meaning for Rangel over the years. As a kid, she saw college as her “ticket out” of Jersey City. However, as time has gone on, she’s come to view it as something that’s neither positive or negative; it’s simply her background. It may have been different from other people’s experiences, but that difference helped pave her path in life and led her to where she is now.   

“I view it as my story, and it’s a matter of using your story to your advantage,” Rangel explains. 

Lisa Rangel '92 at a sorority event during her time at Cornell
Rangel at a sorority event during her time at Cornell. (Photo provided by Lisa Rangel)

She’s also proud of how Cornell helped her and other first-gen students succeed. For instance, Rangel was the recipient of a grant funded by a fellow first-gen Cornellian, and that grant was one of the biggest reasons she could attend the university.  That establishment of accessibility for first-gen students always stuck with her. 

“I think Cornell has always done a nice job with admitting first-gen students and then really doing their best to get them to be here,” Rangel says. 

Paying it forward to first-gen students at Cornell

Rangel and her team at Chameleon Resumes help executives with their job search and career needs, but she still remembers her days as a first-gen college student trying to get her foot in the door. After some reflection on her early career days, she offers the following advice for current first-gen Cornellians entering the job market. 

1.) Network, network and network some more

One thing Rangel wishes she utilized more during her time at Cornell was the university’s network of peers, faculty and alumni. Networking wasn’t something she was familiar with back home, but after spending more time on campus, she saw the true value of those connections and her access to them. 

“Once I realized that was available to me, or someone like me, and I didn’t have to be born into it, really, there were no limits,” Rangel explains. 

Another important piece of networking advice from Rangel: Don’t let rejection hinder your efforts. 

“For every 10 people you reach out to, you may connect with two, and that’s ok,” she says. “Don’t focus on the eight that didn’t respond, focus on the two that did.” 

One way students can network within the Cornell community is to explore CUeLINKS, Cornell’s university-wide knowledge-sharing platform. It’s where current students and alumni connect to discuss career goals, industry insights and more. Students can create a profile and start connecting with fellow Cornellians instantly, giving them a space to cultivate a supportive community.    

2.) Don’t feel like you should have your career figured out right away 

Some people know exactly what they want to do when they get to college. Others need more time to figure it out, and that’s ok. For first-gen students who aren’t sure about their career path, Rangel says it’s not always about knowing exactly what you want to do; it’s about how well you do the job you’re in at the moment that can beget more opportunities. 

“Don’t wait to start something because you think you need to be clear,” she explains. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for the first 15 years of my career, but I did what was in front of me really well. Doing what was in front of me really well helped people in decision-making positions see what I was good at and make recommendations to what I could do next. This is how I found my path.” 

3.) Set up informational interviews with alumni 

For first-gen students who are unsure about their career or job search, Rangel also recommends setting up informational interviews with Cornell alumni who work in the field they’re interested in. These educational conversations provide opportunities for students to ask questions about how a fellow Cornellian got into their career, what they did as a student to set them up for success and more. This helps students understand what it takes to enter their prospective field while simultaneously building their network. 

4.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Navigating career and job search can be confusing for students, which is why Rangel urges them to utilize available resources without shame. 

“Don’t feel bad asking for help,” Rangel advises. “It’s not a weakness to ask for help, it’s actually viewed as a strength.” 

That help can come from an advisor, a mentor or professionals within Career Services at Cornell. Career Services helps set Cornellians up for success, whether they know which job they want or are in the early stages of career exploration

To learn more about Career Services and the resources they provide, including resume and cover letter review drop-ins, stop by 103 Barnes Hall Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to talk with Cornell’s career professionals or email Students can also learn more about other career resources available across campus through the Cornell Career Network

Another space for first-gen students to explore is First Generation & Low-Income Student Support, an office that provides resources for first-generation and low-income students. Cornellians can stop by the office at 200 Barnes Hall Monday through Friday or email for more information.