Samantha Huanca ’23 remembers feeling overwhelmed on North Campus on the first day of her freshman year. As the first person in her family to go to college, she said, she could not look to relatives for guidance, only comfort.
“So I completely relied on myself that year,” she said. “And on the challenging days, I would tell myself, ‘Just fake it ’til you make it.’” That approach offered only temporary relief from the imposter syndrome she felt, and she struggled that first semester.
But in her second semester, she frequently found herself at the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI) – and not just because it was a nice quiet place with lots of free snacks.
“Everyone in that space, both students and staff, are individuals who reinforced my motivation and drive to persevere, and to commit to be my authentic self, instead of faking it,” said Huanca, a student speaker at the annual OADI Honors Award Ceremony, held May 5 in the Statler Hotel.
“Being a part of this community has helped me develop a sense of self. And it helped me establish my identity within the Cornell student body,” said Huanca, now a biology and society major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) who plans pursue a master’s degree in bioethics and then a medical degree.
OADI provides academic and professional-development support and resources for undergraduate students who are traditionally underrepresented and underserved in higher education. It was the first honors event held in person since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vivacious audience of about 100 Cornellians celebrated each other’s accomplishments with shouts of encouragement and applause.
OADI alumna Misha Inniss-Thompson ’16, assistant research professor of psychology in the College of Human Ecology (CHE), the keynote speaker, urged the students to prioritize their passions and interests, in addition to academics.
Academics are important, she said, but she also encouraged students to identify who they are as people, through their passions and interests. For example, she describes herself as a bibliophile and a fierce advocate of Black women and girls, someone who likes to have “intentional conversations about memory and history and femininity,” she said.
“I think a lot about, what are my passions? What are the things that fill my heart and my spirit? I encourage you all to ask questions of yourself like those,” said Inniss-Thompson, who was deeply involved with OADI as a student and whose research examines the impact of families, communities and schools and shaping the health and wellness of Black girls. Quoting Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55, one of her favorite authors, Inniss-Thompson said, “You are your own best thing.”
She encouraged students to stay connected to the people who offer them shelter, including OADI staff. “Remember that there are folks here who love and care about you and see you.”
Last, she asked students to stay curious. “What do you imagine is possible? And how are you prioritizing the space to dream?” She said she dreams by reading widely, for example, especially science fiction by authors such as Octavia Butler. “Dreaming and imagining are not only possible but essential. So, I encourage you to think about, what is it that you’re longing for? And how do you make space for that in the future that you’re creating?”
Perseverance and self-belief were the focus of remarks by the closing student speaker, Angel Langumas ’23, in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, who said he found solace in beating the odds to attend Cornell and become a Rawlings Presidential Research Scholar.
“These numbers are representative of my achievements, and the achievements of my peers and colleagues as well,” said Langumas, a first-generation Dominican-American designer and storyteller from Queens, New York. “They help remind me that I’m capable of achieving greatness, no matter how many obstacles I face.”
He will attend Columbia University as a master’s student in urban design, and he’s collaborating with a group that will display at the Venice Biennale a prototype of temporary housing for displaced people, including the people of Ukraine.
Langumas said many others in the room have faced similar obstacles – pressure to succeed in a high-achieving academic environment, feeling like they don’t belong. But he encouraged them to continue to push forward, even with “a sprinkle of delusion.”
“Believe in yourself and your abilities,” he said. “Your path doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s, and it doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong one because it’s a little bit unconventional.”
The award winners were selected from nominations from the Cornell community to recognize students, faculty, staff and alumni who demonstrated outstanding leadership, academic achievement and community service.
The awards were announced by Alexies Benitez ’25, a human biology, health and society major (CHE) who plans to become a pediatric oncologist, and Yahir Huerta-Salas ’25, a biological sciences major (CALS) who plans to earn a doctoral degree in areas related to chemistry and biology.
- Misha Inniss-Thompson ’16, assistant research professor of psychology (CHE): Ryokichi Yatabe Award, Outstanding Alumna/Alumnus Partner;
- Julie Carmalt, senior lecturer and associate director of the Sloan Program, Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy: Estevan Fuertes Award, Outstanding OADI Faculty Partner;
- Jenn Houtz, Ph.D. ’23, graduate mentor, Graduate School: Toni Morrison Award, Outstanding Graduate Mentorship;
- Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society: Club Brasileiro Award, Outstanding Student Organization;
- Nadine Porter, director of inclusive academic student success, Cornell Engineering: Tomás Bautísta Mapúa Award, Outstanding OADI Staff Partner;
- Arifa Mim ’23, A&S: Gloria Joseph Award, Opportunity Programs Students;
- Adam Sharifi ’24, CALS: Solomon Cook Award, Engaged Research and Scholarship;
- Bianca McIntyre ’23, A&S: George Washington Fields Award, Professional Development for Pre-Professional Program students;
- Liam Ordonez ’23, CHE: Jerome “Brud” Holland Award, Outstanding OADI Scholar-Leader;
- Jennessa Perez ’25, A&S: Marvin Jack Award, OADI Emerging Scholar-Leader; and
- Christopher Mahn ’24, CALS: Lt. Caroline Sanford Finley Veteran Award, Outstanding Student Veteran.