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Kessler Scholars Program innovates on first-gen experience

To benefit first-generation students, Fred and Judy Wilpon have established the Irene and Morris B. Kessler Presidential Scholars Program at Cornell. Beginning in fall 2019, the Kessler Scholars Program will identify 20 academically talented, community-focused undergraduates each year to participate in a multitiered system of support, community and financial aid.

The program, named after Judy Wilpon’s parents, is modeled after the Kessler Presidential Scholarship established by the Wilpons at the University of Michigan in 2007. (The Kessler Presidential Scholars Program at Cornell is distinct from and unrelated to the Kessler Fellows Program for entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, established by Andrew J. Kessler ’80 in 2008.)

“The Kessler Presidential Scholarship takes a unique approach to supporting first-generation students with financial aid, guidance services and a cohort community,” said Cornell President Martha E. Pollack. “I am so impressed with this program and with Fred and Judy Wilpon’s deep personal commitment to making higher education fully accessible for first-generation students.”

Pollack continued: “This is the perfect time for such a vision to take deeper root at Cornell. As we increase our commitment to first-generation students and their experience, the Kessler Scholars Program offers an incredible opportunity to give a cohort of talented, engagement-minded students the tools and support to help them thrive at this university.”

A model to follow

The University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts established its Kessler Presidential Scholars program in the 2008-09 academic year with a cohort of 15 students.

Judy and Fred Wilpon

The program now supports 160 undergraduate students, with an incoming class of 36. It has evolved in 10 years, said Gail Gibson, director of the University of Michigan program, from a traditional scholarship for students who demonstrated financial need. In the past two years, the program has grown to include “wrap-around support” and built a cohort community on campus – the Kessler Scholars.

“Many of us first-gens come to university hoping and expecting to do well, but soon after setting foot on campus we realize the playing field is not even,” said Kessler Scholar Erica Gonzalez-Paramo, who will graduate in 2019 from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s in economics and a minor in business and mathematics. “What Kessler Scholars has done is provide the resources and support to ‘play the game.’”

A good fit at the perfect time

During the past 10 years, Cornell has been investing heavily in diversifying its student body, said Vijay Pendakur, dean of students, based on the university’s historical commitment to access for “any person … any study.”

“As a university, we have to commit to fully supporting and empowering all of the students that we admit, particularly those from marginalized and vulnerable populations,” said Pendakur. “The Kessler Scholars program fits this model seamlessly, as it represents a big step forward in the full inclusion of first-generation students by providing us the resources to support them financially, socially and educationally to truly thrive in their time at Cornell.”

Kessler Presidential Scholars – 20 each year during a four-year pilot at Cornell – will advance through their undergraduate years in a supportive community, said Shakima Clency, associate dean and director of First-Generation and Low-Income Student Support. The scholars will also complete service projects, experience trips to connect with unique places and talented people, and receive financial support.

A dream for expansion

As the Cornell program matures, the two universities will collaborate to fulfill the Wilpons’ vision of a new model for first-generation college education.

“The dream is that ultimately we would be able to bring programs like this across the country,” said Fred Wilpon, a first-generation college student himself in the 1950s.

Erica Gonzalez-Paramo, a Kessler Scholar at the University of Michigan, greets Fred Wilpon at the Kessler Annual Dinner in September 2018.

He entered the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship, but thrived in college thanks to a mentor and to friendships with fellow students. This combination of support and community, he discovered, is key to the success of first-generation students. Now chairman and CEO of the New York Mets, as well as a real estate developer, Wilpon is passionate about helping current students through struggles similar to those he faced.

“Know that you are deserving of this opportunity,” said Gonzalez-Paramo. “Take advantage of all the resources, and do not be afraid to reach out to Kessler Scholars for help. University is overwhelming, but know that you don’t have to face the challenge alone.”

Kate Klein is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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