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Community spotlight: 2023 First Generation Celebration Week


First-generation students - the first in their family to attend college - bring a unique perspective the Cornell campus. These students are trailblazers, overcomers, achievers, dreamers and fighters. And they're no small group; 19.9% of the students in the incoming class of 2026 identified as first-generation college students.

To kick off the 2023 First Generation Celebration Week, we gathered insights and advice from first-gen students, alumni and staff; read more below! And learn more about the First Generation & Low-Income Student Support here.

Kammi Wong

What does being first-gen mean to you?

To many people, being first-gen inevitably limits resources and opportunities in certain areas socially and financially. However, to me, being a first-gen college student actually opened up doors to many unique programs focused on uplifting the first-gen community and most importantly, a close-knitted hardworking and determined group of people who understands the journey and challenges of being first-gen in a prestigious college like Cornell.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

Get involved in different FGLI organization and program on campus! And give back to the community through volunteering, mentoring first-gen high school students, etc.


Allison Dew

What does being first-gen mean to you?

It’s empowering, first and foremost. I know that everything I’ve achieved in my life is a product of my own motivations and effort. In that same vein, I’m endlessly appreciative of those who’ve supported me to this point. No one lives in a closed-system, and recognizing the people in your life who make you better only further encourages you onward - you want to be the same kind of influence for them! To me, being first-gen means being proud of the ‘collaborative-ness’ of my own growth!

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

Recognize your own worth. Sometimes we measure our achievements in relation to everyone else’s, but that thinking is fundamentally flawed. Being the first person to go to college is already an incomprehensible achievement - you’ve broken a cross-generation cycle that VERY few people ever do. That is amazing. It’s tempting to look at where your peers are in their journeys, and feel ‘behind the curve’, but we all have to travel our own path in life. This might mean you need to circumnavigate obstacles others don’t, or end up arriving places a little later than your friends. But we’re all going to the same place. Keep on going just as you’ve always done, celebrating yourself along the way, and please remember that you’re doing great!

Elie Ntakirutimana

What does being first-gen mean to you?

Being a first-generation college student for me means defying odds and embracing opportunities. It signifies the triumphant journey I kicked off to carry the light to success and aspirations for my family. It's a proof of resilience and determination I have embodied in order to be here at this well-deserved "table d'honneur."

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

To be here at the college is the proof that shows that you can do more and more, achieve much more bigger dreams, and build a long-lasting legacy. Never underestimate you or blackmail you, telling yourself lies of impossibilities. Appreciate the greater person you are, and that's the key to overcome every struggle you face in this battle we fight to be the better version of ourselves. Sky is the limit.

KAREN PEREZWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

Being a first-gen college student to me means constantly advocating for yourself with minimal resources and being resilient.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students? 

Celebrate every little thing throughout your journey. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it. 





Safwan Almobin

What does being first-gen mean to you?

Being a first-generation college student means carrying a mix of responsibility, challenge, and privilege. The challenge is not only academic but also financial, cultural, and emotional. I find myself on this lone path, navigating college life without my parents' guidance. However, what keeps me going is knowing that this experience is not just a personal accomplishment but also a way to honor my family's sacrifices. My parents immigrated with their entire family from Bangladesh to see their son pursue higher education at an institution like Cornell. For me, being the first in the family to attend college is an incredible privilege. I have the opportunity to break new ground in whatever I step foot in. At the end of the day, despite all the challenges, I know that I am making my family proud, and that's the greatest reward of being a first-generation college student.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students? 

Attending an institution like Cornell University can sometimes make me forget that I am a first-generation college student. The campus is replete with resources that make everything so accessible. However, my biggest piece of advice is to proactively utilize these resources. Cornell has a vast student body, meaning it falls upon you to reach out and grasp these support systems. Moreover, never regard yourself as inferior to anyone on campus; at the end of the day, you are a Cornell student. I recommend building a robust network of friends and professors, as they can be your greatest allies in overcoming any obstacles you encounter. Trust me, there is always someone willing to help you out. Additionally, set clear goals for your future. Having a vision provides direction and makes navigating the various aspects of the college experience, from course selection to seeking internships, much more manageable. Remember, you have earned your place at Cornell, so embrace this journey with confidence.

Aminata JaitehWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

To me, being a first-generation student means overcoming all obstacles and bridging generational divides. It entails justifying the hardships and sacrifices my family underwent. It means accepting that mistakes are inevitable as long as I'm prepared to grow from them, move on, and use what I've discovered. It also means keeping an eye out for first-generation people who might find themselves in similar circumstances to mine at some point. 

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

To all first-generation college students, I believe it is crucial to pursue your passions and aspirations. Although you should keep in mind that you will be the one investing the time and performing the task, I am aware that many people feel under pressure to fulfill family obligations. Furthermore, it's okay to make errors. Being the first person in your family to take this step means that you are in no way expected to know everything or perform everything perfectly. 

Maura MayhewWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

Being a first-generation college student means working twice as hard to figure out the professional and academic steps to take that everyone else seems to have already walked. But it’s not all bad — there is nothing quite like the feeling of making my family proud when I ace a test, try a new club on campus, and even land a job. I’m proud to be a Cornellian and share that experience with my dad who didn’t have the opportunity to be one.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

It’s scary when you feel like you’re already behind the first day on campus. Reach out to as many career and academic advisors as you can while you’re here! It’s free, and it will put your mind at ease in bridging that gap.


Andrew MartinezWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

Being first-generation is an opportunity to prove to myself and others that despite the challenges that come with being "the first," my presence in these "new/unknown" spaces demonstrates my perseverance and work ethic. It is a responsibility to show others that we belong and can thrive in these spaces. Current first-gen students are the role models to their younger peers who may be anxious or feel that they are not welcomed in spaces. Our ability to navigate these spaces, persist, and move on to give back to our community ensures that the challenges first-generation students face now do not continue to inhibit their ability to enter and thrive in spaces where they remain underrepresented. 

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

We are exceptional, not the exception.

As a recipient of scholarships and a student admitted through an opportunity program, I struggled with the stigma that comes from being a first-generation, low-income, underrepresented student — that I got in because of affirmative action. I was embarrassed at first, but what I realize now is that even if there was some truth to that, the fact that I succeeded speaks to how hard-working, persistent and deserving I was of this opportunity. Too often, I felt like I was the exception – the student with subpar SAT scores, the student who never went abroad, etc. It wasn’t until my mentors reminded me of everything I accomplished that I began to recognize and appreciate my growth in college.

Kayla SprayberryWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

Being a first-gen college student means that I am able to live out the life that my parents didn’t have the chance to. My mother always desired the opportunity for higher education and me
being able to call myself a Cornell student means a lot to the both of us.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

Find a community! For me that was URMC which has
really shaped my Cornell experience in every sense.
I owe my successes, my ability to cope with failure,
my friendships, and my happiness to that student


Michael Clarkson

Describe your first-gen experience:

I never understood I was a first-gen student until many
years later. I thought it was normal to navigate every sea of
college culture without any chart. I had no idea where to
apply, or how to interview. When I got to college, I was
fortunate to make connections with professors who were
generous with their time and support. They helped me
realize my own desire to go to grad school and become a
professor myself. I couldn't have done it without their
advocacy. But all along, I struggled with "imposter
phenomenon" -- let's not call it a syndrome. I believed (and
on bad days, still believe) that I would be exposed as a fraud because I wasn't from the right background, or that my work ethic wasn't strong enough, or that my work quality wasn't good enough. That led me to mentally unhealthy patterns with which I still struggle.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

My advice for first-gen Bowers CIS students is foremost not to deny your own self-worth. You'll have successes and failures, but those don't define you. Also, know that you are not alone. We can share these experiences with one another and grow together.

Michael got his MS in computer science from Cornell in 2004 and his PhD in Computer Science from Cornell in 2010.

Amanda BurkartWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

Being a first-generation college student means being resilient. It means lots of trial and error and learning as you go. Being a first-generation college student means setting goals and working to achieve them despite the many obstacles that appear. It means being the first to do something and creating your path without step-by-step instructions on how to do so.

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

My advice to other first-generation college students is to not compare yourself to others. Everyone moves at their own pace and there is no one way to achieve your dreams. Be confident. You deserve to be here as much as any other student. It may feel like you are behind or not as prepared, but that is not true. Your background is what makes you unique. You are here for a reason and are 100% capable of success. Don't be afraid to ask for help. As first-gen students, we often have pride and want to be able to figure things out on our own, but we don't have to. There are many people here who are willing to help.

LISA RANGELWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

Being first-gen has morphed in meaning to me over the years. When I was a kid, it was my "ticket out"; but now, I find it as a different background compared to other people's backgrounds. It's not better, it's not worse, it just is what it is. Back then, I felt as though I wasn't equal sometimes, or I didn't have the resources other people had, and while that all is to be true, it's just another way to be and another way to come into the world. So I don't view it as a positive or a negative anymore; I view it as my story, and it's a matter of using your story to your advantage. 

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

My advice to current first-generation college students is within the career space. First, network within the valuable Cornell community and keep talking to people. Second, don’t wait to start something because you think you need to be clear. 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. Third, if you aren't sure about what you want to do, tap into that Cornell community and set up informational interviews with alumni in fields you have interest in. And fourth, don't be afraid to ask for help along the way. 

Learn more about Lisa HERE.


Justin KondratWhat does being first-gen mean to you?

As a first-generation student, I am filled with immense pride and gratitude. I never imagined my transformation into the person I am today. Looking back, I realize that I overcame many obstacles and broke free from cycles of trauma. It wasn't easy, but now that I am on the other side, all the hours of dedication and therapy paid off. Understanding and acknowledging where I came from empowers me to pay it forward to the next generation. All it took was someone to believe and see my potential. 

What advice would you offer to other first-gen students?

Celebrate each achievement, big or small! You worked hard for them, and they belong to you. As a first-generation student, it's natural to feel like an impostor, but it's important to remember that you deserve to celebrate your successes, regardless of how you got here. Whether you spent four years at Cornell or transferred as a junior (like me), know that Cornell is lucky to have you.