Carnegie Mellon University
May 19, 2021

First-Gens Celebrate First-ever Graduation Recognition Ceremony

By Jean Hayes

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing & Communications
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GianCarlo Seixas has been dreaming about graduation for four years.

"The minute they announced that they were doing an in-person ceremony, it was a very big thing for me," he said.

Seixas, who is graduating with a double major in mechanical and biomedical engineering and a minor in design, is the first in his family to graduate from college. He also is the founding president of FIRST Together, a student organization connected to Carnegie Mellon University's FIRST Together@CMU Initiative, which offers students opportunities to celebrate and embrace their first-generation identity, resources to support their academic, professional and campus life experiences, and avenues to build connections and networks to help them reach their full potential.

"For first-gens, graduation is something that's supposed to be incredibly momentous that you've worked for your entire life. First-gens don't always know if they're going to go to college, let alone graduate. We don't take our success for granted," Seixas said.

On May 18, the university hosted its inaugural First-Gen Graduation Recognition Ceremony. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion (CSDI) and FIRST Together. The idea originated with Yosira Hernandez, who is graduating with a master's degree in engineering and technology innovation management.

Knowing that many students, as well as their families, would be unable to attend in person, Hernandez — who served as one of the student speakers for the event — proposed the ceremony be livestreamed. Hernandez's family in Southern California watched online.

"Not only did I accomplish this dream of mine, but my family did also. They supported and encouraged me so this ceremony was also for them. Even though I'm the one wearing the cap and gown, we really did this together," she said.

In March of 2021, Carnegie Mellon was designated by NASPA'S Center for First-Generation Student Success as a First-Gen Forward university for its commitment to improving the college experience for first-generation students. Amy Burkert, vice provost for education, and M. Shernell Smith, associate dean and executive director of CSDI, were pivotal in inserting CMU into the First-Gen Forward movement.

"Advancing the success of first-generation and low-income students is a critical part of our educational experience. Being recently named as a First-Gen Forward institution gives us a national platform and community of professionals to share evidence-based practices, resources and scholarly space to generate new knowledge. As we strategically implement new goals and engage in more high-impact practices, we will build upon our equity and inclusion framework. While there is still much more progress to be made, the university's commitment to FIRST Together initiatives at the Center will facilitate the success of historically underrepresented student populations like first-generation students by helping to develop community, professional mentorship and personal empowerment," Smith said.

For Bridget Mensah, being involved in FIRST Together positively impacted her college experience.

"It was really influential in helping me build relationships outside of my classes, helping me connect with other students who were having similar experiences as first-generation students. It was also really helpful in connecting me with different academic resources like the Academic Success Center, which helped me become a better student academically. And it also gave me opportunities to build some faculty connections," she said.

Mensah, who is graduating with a double major in behavioral economics and decision science from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences and a minor in business administration, is heading to New York to work for IBM doing market research.

Kate Liston remembered a facilitator at orientation asking first-generation students to step forward during an icebreaker activity. She recalled feeling embarrassed that there were so few students like her. Liston helped create FIRST Together to make space for people to connect.

“For some people, it was empowering, but for me that was an experience where I felt like I was going to have an anxiety attack. I felt so disappointed and ashamed of my identity walking across that circle because there were so few of us and no one ever addressed the identity of a first-gen student,” said Liston, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. “It was empowering to be involved in any opportunities I had that would inspire other first-generation students to also pursue this path."

First-generation student and viola performance major Tyler Brugmann is heading home to St. Louis after Commencement to celebrate receiving his master's degree from the School of Music.

His sage advice to first-generation students: "Do not doubt yourself. Do not doubt your potential. Just continue to push yourself. Surround yourself with people that have the same drive as you. Every single student has the capacity to get an education and push themselves to have an amazing future and an amazing life."

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