Being First-Gen at Cornell

A student walks outside Ives Hall

By: Malikul Muhamad, ILR ’20

I remember first stepping onto Cornell’s campus a couple weeks before my fall classes began and feeling excited, but anxious. I felt the looming shadow of imposter syndrome, loneliness, and anxiety knowing I was among the first in my family to ever attend college.

My family and I came to the U.S. as political refugees from Indonesia. My parents, and their forefathers before them, lived almost entirely in remote villages or small towns where finishing high school was a rare feat, let alone attending a university. When it came time for my siblings and I to apply to colleges and eventually navigate the terrains of university life, we were on our own.

I didn’t foresee my identity as a first-generation college student becoming so salient. However, coming into college I quickly realized how different I felt from my peers. I remember sitting in my introductory classes and noticing the ease in which other students finished their assignments and exams and the bold way they would ask questions. I admit that I felt a little ashamed of my lack of confidence and I started doubting my competence. I was convinced I did not belong.

For a while, I refused to ask for help. However, the support staff and resources that Cornell and ILR offered created a welcoming environment. I eventually sought advice and signed up for office hours and tutoring, went to the Office of Student Services, engaged in mentorship programs, and found a similar-minded group of students. I realized that I belonged here just as much as everyone else and that I could and would succeed.

To the incoming first-generation students, I leave with this note: the feelings associated with being a first generation may never leave, even as you are on the cusp of graduating, but please know that newer feelings of belonging and identity will begin to form. It can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to do everything yourself, but discovering and taking advantage of funding resources, networks, and mentors here can make all the difference. You are not alone, and you have a network of support at ILR and throughout Cornell to help you reach your full potential.

For me, it was the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, First-Generation Student Union, Minorities of ILR club, ILR Office of Student Services, ILR Office of Career Services, ILR Office of International Programs, and my professors and amazing roommates. In my years of being a student here, I found a home, community, and confidence. And for that, Cornell, I thank you.