On May 7 the First Generation Student Union honored members of the Class of 2017 who are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in the U.S. First-gen students represent approximately 14 percent of the student body.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got here. Most importantly I’ve been thinking about the people that helped me get here,” said Cornell Woodson, adviser to the student-run First Generation Student Union and associate director for diversity and inclusion in the ILR School. Woodson made reference to Maya Angelou, who quoted a 19th-century African-American song, “Rainbow in the Cloud.” Woodson said, “The clouds represent the barriers she faced in life, and the rainbows represent all the people in her life that helped her make it through.”
“I identify as a first-generation college student myself,” said Woodson. “We had a lot of clouds, to use Maya Angelou’s words. We had to get through the SAT on our own. We had to get through the college application process on our own.”
Woodson said this is a common narrative for first-generation students, but it is important to remember that parents and guardians of these students helped in other ways. “While our parents might not understand pulling an all-nighter for an exam, they do understand … [how to] get up when it’s still dark to put clothes on our back and go to work to give us what we need. … They still were rainbows in our clouds.”
Woodson offered the graduating students another Angelou quote: “When you learn, teach. If you get, give.”
“You now have a profound honor of being able to help others make it where you are, and I hope you will never miss an opportunity to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud,” he said.
Students were welcomed onstage one at a time to receive their graduation rope and a certificate in recognition of their accomplishment.
In his closing remarks Vijay Pendakur, Cornell’s Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, said the students “achieved something remarkable.”
“For me, first-generation students represent the best of higher education, the idea that higher education can be a social equalizer,” Pendakur said. He also pointed out the baccalaureate degree is often a victory for the whole family. “This is for many of you a chance to change the trajectory of not only your life but the economic and social trajectory of all the people you love, and sometimes your whole community,” Pendakur said.
He said that while many first-generation students experience the fun of college life, they also had to fight through hard times of obstacles and self-doubt to finish their degrees that could have deterred others.
Never be afraid to ask for help, and believe in your ability to accomplish your goals, he said.
“I’m really grateful for the ceremony,” said Eduardo Gonzalez ’17. “It’s really wholesome and inspiring for what’s to come. … It’s really nice to see everyone who took the same journey as you together.”
Said Kelsey Fryer ’17, “I think the ceremony was really genuine and touching. … I really appreciate all the efforts that went into it. It’s really heart-warming that all first-generation students can get involved in the First Generation Student Union.”
Ismael Oumzil ’17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.