First-generation student Talha Islam '24, who emigrated from Bangladesh at 11, brought to Cornell a passion for community building and mentorship, inspired by the support he received at LaGuardia Community College. 

Community college transfers flourish at Cornell

In 2021, Talha Islam ’24 was a full-time student at LaGuardia Community College in New York City while working more than 40 hours a week at a Whole Foods to help support his family. At work in Tribeca, he’d often see customers wearing Cornell hats and sweatshirts – which seeded a dream that would change the trajectory of his life.

“I realized that I had to get myself out there, I had to apply,” said Islam, an applied economics and management major in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

This year, Islam, who emigrated from Bangladesh at age 11, will be the first in his family to earn a bachelor's degree. He follows in the footsteps of many students who find their futures in Ithaca after transferring from community colleges. 

“If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be graduating from Cornell, I would have laughed,” said Kyle Griswold ’24, a Marine Corps veteran and plant science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). Griswold discovered his passion for plants in Australia, after being stationed in Japan; back in the States, he built a STEM foundation at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester before transferring to Cornell.

“I wanted to do research and be challenged more intellectually, and I really got that here,” Griswold said.

Accepting and supporting community college students has long been an institutional priority, with 100 students on average admitted from community colleges each year. As part of Cornell’s land-grant mission, admissions teams – particularly in CALS, the ILR School and the College of Human Ecology (CHE) – work directly with State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) community colleges, clearly articulating transfer pathways and requirements and building relationships with transfer counselors who can guide talented students to consider Cornell. Generous institutional grants, which do not need to be repaid, enable students with financial need to enroll. Once on campus, students receive support from student services within the colleges, through specialized programs and from each other.

“We are charged with helping improve people’s lives in the state,” said Ian Schachner, senior associate director of admissions in ILR. “If research helps the state, we do it; if teaching helps the state, we do it. If it helps to provide a pipeline for these incredible community college students to get the best education in the state, we do that, too.”

“We want Cornell to be an option for students who may not have originally thought that their journey could lead to Cornell,” said Katherine McComas, vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs and professor of communication in CALS. “The collaborations we have with SUNY and CUNY, including many of their community colleges, are long-standing, and we’re excited to grow and strengthen new and existing transfer pathways as well.”

Rebecca Mack, longtime transfer planning counselor at MCC, has followed many students on their Cornell journeys – and said graduation is just the beginning. “I have seen how Cornell can transform lives,” she said. “People are incredibly successful once they’re given the opportunity, and they go on to make the world a better place.”

Kyle Griswold '24, a Marine Corps veteran and former hardcore punk musician, transferred from Monroe Community College and found both intellectual rigor and community at Cornell.

‘A massive benefit’

Once a Marine Corps armory chief, Griswold brought leadership and community-building skills he gained through his service to his campus lab. Olivia Maday ’24, a biology and society major in CALS, said the bumpy road that led her to Niagara Community College/SUNY Niagara – after a move in high school from Delaware to Louisiana disqualified her for in-state tuition in either state – made her resourceful and motivated to help others.

“I’ve learned to never give up,” Maday said. “I could have easily given up in high school. I could have said, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to go to college and afford it.’”

First-generation student Isabella DeRubeis ’24, in the ILR School, excelled in high school but didn’t know what she wanted to study in college. She enrolled at MCC and found opportunities in and out of the classroom, serving in student government and playing basketball, that allowed her to grow into her interests and strengths.

“In student government, I learned so much about being on a team, leading, advocating for students, which then aligned with what I want to do in the future with a law degree,” DeRubeis said. “In basketball, I learned to be tough, to persevere. I feel like community college prepared me for Cornell, and Cornell prepared me for life.”

Transfer students also enrich a diverse student body.

“Community college students expand the range of stories and backgrounds,” Schachner said, “so any class at Cornell could have someone who is a parent or grandparent, a veteran, someone who has stories about business and leadership on a nuclear submarine or in a steel mill, someone who can talk about poverty, because they were picking flowers to survive. There’s a massive benefit everyone here gets by expanding the range of people you can learn from.”

Paul Fisher, senior associate director of admissions in CHE, agreed.

“College students in general are motivated by the hope that lives can be changed through the power of education,” he said. “Community college students just come at it from all over the life and experience spectrum, and one of the joys of working with these students is never knowing what kind of life story they will bring.”

First-generation student Isabella DeRubeis '24 came to Cornell from Monroe Community College, where she found her footing as a leader and scholar.

Game changers

Cornell’s need-blind admissions and grant-based financial aid are often the first essential forms of support for students transferring from community colleges.

“Many students think it’s too expensive, they rule Cornell out before they even look at it,” Mack said. “They don’t realize that if they’re lower- or middle-income, Cornell has amazing financial support.”

Maday said that filling out the College Scholarship Service profile, in addition to the FAFSA, made all the difference for her – because it allowed her to describe not only her parents’ income but also what other financial burdens her family has, including the fact that she has multiple college-age siblings.

“A lot of schools did not give me the opportunity to do that, and it was a game changer,” Maday said.

Once on campus, students can find personal and community support from orientation to graduation.

“Imposter syndrome hits a community college student twice as hard,” Islam said. “You’re now at a top-tier university, where everyone is a go-getter, and you feel like, ‘Wow, can I compete with these people?’ And you feel already kind of behind.”

CALS has a designated transfer student success navigator, a point person who helps students throughout their Cornell journey. In ILR and CHE, student services provides similar support.

“Part of our role,” Schachner said, “is to let them know that their being here is no accident.”

A program run in collaboration with CALS, formerly called HHMI-CURT and now PAVER, provides community and connects transfer students with research opportunities to help them compete for graduate programs in the life sciences.

“We get you in a cohort, we get you the skills and the experience, so that when you want to apply to vet school or Ph.D. programs, you’re ready,” said Melanie Ragin, a community college alumna who serves as assistant dean for inclusion and academic excellence in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The program has made a huge difference for me,” Maday said. “I’ve been able to talk to advisers and people at conferences about what I can do after I graduate to set myself up for success.”

Support for community college students also comes from the students themselves: Maday is a CALS ambassador and gives advice to prospective students; Griswold is an outreach peer counselor for veterans; Islam is a new student orientation leader and president of CC STEP, a student group for transfer students (from any school) that hosts social events and builds community.

“The whole purpose is to make people feel more comfortable and to share stories and inspire each other,” Islam said. “Right now it’s just social, but we’re hoping to go to different community colleges and talk to the students about the process we went through to get to Cornell.”

New pipelines for community college students are also being formed, such as a CALS effort to map a curriculum for sustainable farming and viticulture students from Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) and Finger Lakes Community College, respectively, to transfer to Cornell.

“Once we get the foundation set with Finger Lakes and TC3, we hope to branch out to other community college partners as well,” said Sandy Drumluk, assistant director of admissions and transfer coordinator for CALS. “This is such a diverse group and always an important part of our incoming class – and working with them is the most fun part of my job.”

Olivia Maday '24 transferred from Niagara Community College (SUNY Niagara) and now helps other prospective transfer students as a CALS ambassador.

Another world

Even if their paths were longer or more winding, community college students find at Cornell the same thing other students do: intellectual community and passion.

“I found a lot of community just within plant science,” Griswold said. “That’s really why I wanted to come here: because it’s so large, and you get a multitude of perspectives, and now I really understand how broad the discipline is.”

“I really grew through my coursework and through research,” DeRubeis said. “I was really challenged and was able to find my passions and just learn from so many different people. I’m going to miss it here a lot.”

Students said Commencement would be bittersweet, but also a day filled with pride, celebration and gratitude.

“I remember the drive here when I was starting – coming to this big-name world that’s tucked away and hidden down here,” Griswold said. “It was kind of like crossing a threshold, leaving one world and entering another: this world where all these different disciplines are working together, a kind of ideal. It’s pretty remarkable, and I just have a strong sense of gratitude and appreciation for being here.”

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