First Generation Graduate Students Give Back

By Katya Hrichak

FiGLI logo with text reading: Cornell University FiGLI First Generation & Low Income Graduate Student OrganizationFor many first generation college students, uncertainty clouds the experience. Students who have parents who attended college arrive with at least some understanding of how to anticipate challenges or access resources to solve the inevitable challenges. First generation students are full of questions—questions they think they should know the answers to, questions they do not know how to answer, and questions they might not even know to ask.

Some Cornell graduate students with firsthand knowledge of how hard it is to be the first in the family to attend college want to illuminate the college experience for other first generation students. Over the last semester, the First Generation and Low Income Graduate Student Organization (FiGLI) partnered with the Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) to offer programming as part of their ongoing outreach initiatives. Events were offered to first generation and low income undergraduate students from TC3 and undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs from Cornell.

The virtual series, “First Generation for the Next Generation: Strategies for Academic Success,” offered two panels and three workshops which provided insight into elements of community colleges, four-year institutions, and graduate programs.

“Members of rural communities can feel unwelcome in higher education settings. To grow and recognize their own power, academic support and a feeling of belonging is especially significant,” said Jennifer Houtz, ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral candidate and FiGLI president. Through the series, speakers helped students to recognize their potential to succeed in these settings.

At the first event, Cornell graduate students and postdocs met with TC3 faculty to learn about teaching at community colleges. In the second panel, TC3 students asked first generation and low income Cornell undergraduate and graduate students about their academic paths. The next three workshops featured Cornell FiGLI members discussing how they applied to four-year institutions, conducted domestic and international research as undergraduates, and navigated the unwritten rules of higher education.

Jennifer Houtz
Jennifer Houtz

“Together with FiGLI leadership, TC3 Associate Professor of English, Anndrea Mathers, started the First Generation for the Next Generation project to increase awareness of students’ own potential and to open doors that students believed to be closed,” Houtz said.

In addition to the TC3/Cornell series, FiGLI hosts events for Cornell’s first generation and low income graduate students with emphases on financial literacy and navigating academia. A partnership with Alternatives Credit Union offers workshops on credit and investments, while a faculty seminar series brings in speakers who share their experiences as first generation college graduates as well as tips for expanding professional networks.

“Few financial literacy resources take into consideration the unique context of low income graduate students who are often upwardly mobile, but may lack access to cultural capital on how to strategically manage their finances,” said Houtz. “FiGLI organizes professional development workshops that aim to remove financial and social barriers.”

In the spring semester, FiGLI aims to continue the partnership with TC3 as well as continue offering workshops and events for the Cornell graduate student community.

“The work FiGLI is doing to support first generation and low income students within and beyond Cornell is incredibly important,” said Associate Dean for Inclusion and Student Engagement Sara Xayarath Hernández. “Connecting TC3 students with members of FiGLI helps more first gen students see themselves represented throughout every stage of academia. FiGLI’s efforts to engage with earlier career students and share insights on navigating college and graduate school as first gen and/or low income students are critical to making Cornell and higher education in general more welcoming and accessible.”

FiGLI is one of 13 graduate student organizations represented on the Graduate and Professional Student Diversity Council. Information on upcoming FiGLI events and opportunities can be found on the group’s Facebook page.