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Cornell senior, Lassan Bagayoko

First-Generation Student from Harlem Leads College Prep Course for Underprivileged High School Students

As the son of first-generation immigrants from Mali living in Harlem, New York, the idea of attending an Ivy League college often felt out of reach for Lassan Bagayoko. But a 2017 scholarship to attend Cornell’s Precollege Summer Program for high school students not only helped Bagayoko prepare for the rigorous university, it also inspired him to start his own initiative to help other first-generation students get into the colleges of their dreams.

Now a senior majoring in government and minoring in education, inequality studies and law and society, Bagayoko was recently awarded $5,000 through Cornell’s Janet McKinley '74 Family Grant to provide an online college prep program for high school students in underprivileged communities.

Led by Bagayoko, students in Cornell’s Scholars in Our Society and Africa chapter paired 20 rising high school juniors and seniors in places such as New York, Atlanta, and Nigeria, with students mentors from Cornell and CUNY medical school. The one-on-one mentorship workshops included topics such as how to formulate a list of prospective colleges, navigate the FAFSA process, write a college essay and prepare for standardized tests.

Muhamadou Jobarteh, a freshman at Cornell, expressed how transformative this program was for him when he was a senior at Harlem High School in New York City. “Lassan was a wonderful mentor. His advice on the college process was an inspiration and made me believe in myself even more.”

“Being able to lead this project was truly a dream come true,” Bagayoko said. “This is my true passion and where I hope my career will lead. It’s just the beginning of educational projects and initiatives I hope to be involved in.”

Jim Schechter, director of Cornell's Precollege Program for High School Students, a division of Cornell’s School of Continuing Education (SCE), said he isn’t surprised to see how Bagayoko has flourished at Cornell since meeting him in 2017. “In part due to Lassan’s experience with Cornell’s Summer Precollege Program, he’s developed from an earnest, if slightly unsure, high school student to a confident, studious and engaged Cornell community member,” Schechter said.

“Since arriving at Cornell, Lassan has demonstrated important leadership skills such as being president of Black Students United and an engaged Cornell leadership fellow. I’m thrilled that he used his Janet McKinley '74 Family Grant to improve academic outcomes for others in the wider community.” 

As a Cornell undergraduate, Bagayoko also took advantage of other programs offered by Cornell SCE, which helped him toward his future goals. “Lassan made the most of the programs we offer here at the school,” said Schechter.

“He interned in DC with New York Representative Adriano Espaillat [NY-D13] through our Cornell in Washington program and took a Summer Session course. Soon he’ll be a minted Cornellian with job prospects and rich experiences behind him.”

In fact, Bagayoko, was recently offered an analyst position with Bank of America in Charleston, North Carolina upon his graduation this year.

Bagayoko said he plans to continue mentoring high school students with a program similar to the one he led in New York City. “That experience showed me the power of organized educational initiatives. It’s my proudest academic and professional accomplishment.”

This story appears in SCE news

Shelley Preston is the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions’ communications and marketing specialist.

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