‘I’m First!’ campaign helps first-generation students build connections

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Joe Schwartz

Clinton Ikioda '19 was one of more than 50 first-generation faculty, staff and students who gathered Oct. 12 for a networking reception for the new "I'm First!" campaign.

More than 50 first-generation faculty, staff and students gathered Oct.12 for a networking reception for the new “I’m First!” campaign hosted by the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI). The reception allowed first-generation Cornell students to network with staff and faculty who are also first-generation students.

After icebreaker activities, participants engaged in an interactive roundtable discussion about college experiences and opportunities, facilitated by students Khloe Heath ’19 and Asif Siddique ’20. Twelve students, faculty and staff participants also shared a video testimonial discussing why the campaign is important to them.

Students have been actively involved in developing and managing programming through OADI as First-in-Class Mobilizers, a group of seven first-generation student leaders passionate about seeing their peers succeed.

“We take their ideas and try to operationalize it. It was the idea of the students who wanted to meet faculty and staff and other students like themselves to come and start to talk about strategies on how to make sure that they’re not only coping, but also thriving at Cornell,” said Treymane Waller, interim director of OADI.

Rochelle Jackson-Smarr, OADI program manager of community engagement and social justice programs and Office of Engagement Initiatives assistant director of student leadership, oversees the I’m First! program. She has a particular investment in the success of the program based on her personal experiences as a first-generation student.

'I'm First!' campaign

“I see my role as empowering the first-gen community to speak up for what they need but also to hold staff and faculty accountable to support them,” said Jackson-Smarr.

The discussion ended with brainstorming further strategies for supporting first-generation students on campus. Among the suggestions: integrating programming into Orientation week, creating a formal mentoring program, getting parents involved in the process, and building a greater sense of community among first-gen students, staff and faculty.

Other I’m First events this semester include a resume workshop, graduate school presentation and off-campus opportunities information session. Cornell University enrolls approximately 2,000 first-generation students and efforts are underway to expand the reach of First-in-Class programs.

“Students are thankful for the opportunity and spaces to connect with others and hear other first-gen stories – the stories of success but also barriers and how they overcome them,” said Jackson-Smarr.

Amanda Kabonero ’20 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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