SC Johnson College student Jason DeLaCruz ’26 (in purple) speaks with mentors and students at a recent Accelerator Scholar event in New York City.

First-gen students, alumni connect in mentorship program

When Chayil Hyland ’25 first met one of her Accelerator Scholar mentees last fall, the freshman spoke intensely about all the activities they planned to join. Hyland could relate.

“It’s the kind of pressure a lot of first-generation students feel,” said Hyland, who is majoring in hotel administration at the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration. “I told them it’s great that they’re ambitious, but I knew from experience that it’s better to start off small and grow gradually.”

That’s just one life lesson participants can share in the new Accelerator Scholars Program in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, where Hyland is among 22 student mentors working with 69 first-generation freshmen and sophomores. Hyland had suggested more mentorship opportunities when giving feedback for the Pre-Collegiate Summer Scholars Program, which she attended. She was not the only student craving more connection.

“Our first-generation students are incredible and talented,” said Michelle Duguid, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging and associate professor of management and organizations at SC Johnson. “But, being a first-generation student myself, I know we don’t always have the same resources, tangible and intangible, as our peers. And this program gives our students access to mentoring, networking, knowledge and skills.”

In the Accelerator Scholars Program, which started fall 2023, each mentor meets with a small group of mentees once or twice a month to discuss any topic, from academics and career fairs to friends and family. And, each student mentor is paired with an industry mentor at the global investment firm KKR, the founding sponsor of the program, for college and career guidance. Nearly all KKR mentors are Cornell alumni.

To alleviate some of the financial pressure many of the undergraduates experience, participants earn payment for their time, and the program collaborates with student services and other offices to secure new business clothing, repair computer equipment, and obtain other necessities when needed.

“The Accelerator Scholars Program is so enriching and just a beautiful experience for everyone involved,” said Hyland, who meets monthly with her industry mentor, Mitch Lee ’90, J.D. ’96, a former Big Red linebacker and member of the Cornell Athletics Hall of Fame. “And I’m glad it came to fruition while I’m still here and I can still reach others.”

Soon after arriving at Cornell, Hyland joined several clubs, worked multiple jobs and aimed to ace her classes. As the first in her family to attend a four-year college, she wanted to make her parents proud.

But she learned that doing too much can backfire.

After she did poorly on an exam, she turned to Tyrell Stewart-Harris, lecturer in marketing and management communication at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, for advice. He suggested that instead of focusing on getting A-pluses, she could consider scaling back to prioritize building relationships, creating a balanced lifestyle and learning what she needed to reach her next goal. She took his words seriously and passed them on.

“Now, as a junior, I feel really confident in, not necessarily my ability to do everything correctly, but in my ability to learn,” she said. “Focusing only on grades would have been a mistake.”

“In partnering with Cornell on this first-generation initiative, we are committed to helping empower the tremendous future potential of students who are the first in their family to attend college,” said Pamela Alexander, managing director of Corporate Citizenship at KKR and a first-generation student herself. “The feedback from our KKR mentors has been extremely positive. Many have shared not only their experience and expertise with their mentees but have also opened up their networks for additional connections for their mentees.”

In February, around 60 Accelerator Scholars traveled to KKR’s offices in New York City for a day of learning with their industry mentors. The trip complemented monthly on-campus sessions on topics including campus mental health resources, financial literacy, negotiation skills and business etiquette.

On the trip, Melinda Serifoski ’26, a Nolan School student majoring in hotel administration and one of Hyland’s mentees, participated in a case study exercise with KKR mentors.

“I really liked this because it gave us young people, who aren’t sure where to start our careers, a taste of what it’s like to be on the real estate credit team,” Serifoski said. “A freshman in my group who initially had no interest in real estate said that he is now rethinking his decision because he enjoyed it so much.”

Serifoski hopes to serve as a mentor next year as a junior.

“It’s really nice to have people around you who are on the same path, and it’s comforting knowing that we have each other,” she said. “We can go to each other for emotional support and then work through issues together. It feels like we’re one big team.”

Alison Fromme is a writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

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