Students who are the first in their families to attend college face their own set of unique challenges: Who do they ask for advice about classes? How do they talk with their parents about sensitive issues like money? How do they deal with the pressure that comes with being the first?
Those are just a few of the reasons why the Diversity Action Coalition at Rose Hill, part of United Student Government (USG), along with United Student Government at Lincoln Center and the deans’ offices at Fordham College of Rose Hill, Fordham College of Lincoln Center, and the Gabelli School of Business, organized a virtual First-Generation Celebration, held virtually on May 4.
Lifting Up All Voices
“Being part of USG means not only listening to our voices, but also celebrating and uplifting certain voices,” said Loreen Ruiz, a senior at Fordham College Lincoln Center and president of USG. “To my knowledge, this is the first time that there has been any kind of celebration that recognizes first-generation students specifically.”
More than 40 members of the Class of 2021 submitted photos and mini-bios that were featured at the event in a slideshow.
Camilla Gomez, a junior at Fordham College Rose Hill and co-chair of the Diversity Action Coalition, who helped organize the event, said that as a first-generation student herself, seeing the graduates was inspiring.
‘You Are All Agents of Change’
“You all are agents of change and justice for your own families, making generational changes, and growing that generational wealth, and that’s incredibly inspiring to see in all of you and I feel honored to be in your presence,” she said.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, said that the first-generation students hold a special place in the University’s heart and history, as well as for him personally, as his father was a first-generation college student.
“I look at you, I see my own father,” he said. “Like many of you, he was the first member of his family to go to college. Therefore, like many of you, he knew the awful and awesome responsibility that lay on his shoulders, for his entire family pinned their hopes on him. Through his achievements, they saw their own dreams come true.”
First-Gen Alumni Offer Support
The event featured three alumni speakers, all of whom were first-generation students, as well as games and prizes for participants.
Joy Tolliver, a 2004 graduate of Fordham College Rose Hill who majored in psychology and went on to get her J.D. at Rutgers University, told the students that the fact that they were able to make it through college, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows their resiliency.
“It really speaks volumes as to who you are—your resiliency, your persistence, and your determination to make it despite the odds against you,” she said. “I know the title of the event tonight is your experience as a first-gen student, but you’re more than that—you are trailblazers for your families and your communities.”
Luigi Fata, a 1991 graduate of the Gabelli School of Business, encouraged the students to use their stories and experiences to find their own “unique selling proposition.”
“Your experience as the first has to be what carries you and gives you that fuel, and that fire, energy, and passion to do what it is you want to do, because the others who don’t have that first-gen mindset are going to be up against expecting to get what they want,” he said. “We need to work harder for it to go after what we want.”
Michelle Hopson, a 2009 graduate from PCS, told the students to use their experiences to shape their future goals.
“Remember who your identities are and all the people who have come and worked hard for you and you’ve worked hard for them,” she said. “Don’t forget who you are, where you came from, and use that as an identity builder, not an identifier.”
She also encouraged the students to use the alumni network that Fordham offers to find mentors and support even after graduation so they don’t feel alone.
“If you ever need a mentor, just reach out and let us know—we’re here for you guys,” she said. “We’ll help and share what it takes to be successful.”