CMU Recognized for Commitment to First-Gen Students
By Bruce Gerson
Carnegie Mellon has been designated a First-Gen Forward university for its commitment to improve the college experience for first-generation students. CMU received the honor from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and The Suder Foundation, which selected CMU into its third cohort (2021-22) of member schools.
“A commitment to first-generation students and empowering their success dates back to the founding of our institution, when Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Technical Schools for the sons and daughters of the steelworkers in the Pittsburgh region,” said Vice Provost for Education Amy Burkert. “While we have changed in many ways over those decades, and recognize we still have much work to do, the core of who we are as an institution and the transformative impact we aspire to have on individuals, communities and society as a whole has remained steadfast.”
Carnegie Mellon’s first-generation programs and initiatives build upon the university’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion. Burkert said one of the most significant programs for first-gen students at CMU, which comprise more than 9% of the university’s student population, is the First Together@CMU Initiative. The program 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.
First Together@CMU includes the newly organized First Together student organization. GianCarlo Seixas, a senior double major in mechanical and biomedical engineering with a minor in design, is president of the student group.
“Coming to an elite school like Carnegie Mellon was an aggressive change of pace for me. As I tried to adjust, I often found myself caught in feelings of confusion and inferiority. It can become difficult to find a sense of belonging when there are so few people like yourself,” he said.
“But finding community has made all the difference. Not only did I come to realize that I was not alone in my feelings, but I also found value in gaining perspective from students different from me,” Seixas said.
Seixas said First Together has given him confidence and motivated him to become a leader and campus advocate for first-gen students. “I’ll use my last years at this university to set a foundation for First Together, so that those who come after me can receive the support that they deserve,” he said.
The Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion plays a pivotal role in raising awareness and support for first-gen students.
"... finding community has made all the difference." — GianCarlo Seixas
“The center represents the importance and influence of equity and inclusive excellence in every aspect of the Carnegie Mellon student experience,” said M. Shernell Smith, associate dean and executive director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion. “While there is still much progress to be made, we work to continuously support the success of historically underrepresented student populations through developing community, active mentorship and personal empowerment.”
First Together provides workshops on financial aid and career resources, and networking opportunities with first-gen alumni. It has sponsored student attendance at professional development conferences and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner.
“We work intentionally in our programming to not conflate limited resource background with first generation, and as such, have been able to offer programs and outreach that is more nuanced and relevant for CMU’s context,” Smith said. “Connecting students with faculty, staff and alumni who identify as first-generation has brought forth many positive relationships.”
Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Gina Casalegno said she was pleased at the recognition and optimistic about the future.
“Building on the dedicated efforts of students and the center’s staff who founded First Together, becoming a First-Gen Forward university will help us advance our practice in the years ahead,” Casalegno said. “Our first-generation students inspire me every year with their contributions to the CMU experience and I look forward to growing our efforts to support their holistic education.”
As a First-gen Forward university, CMU will be afforded opportunities to engage with peer institutions. A First-gen Forward Workshop is slated for June and representatives from selected colleges and universities will virtually participate in professional development sessions.
“Our first-generation students inspire me every year with their contributions to the CMU experience and I look forward to growing our efforts to support their holistic education." — Gina Casalegno
“First-gen Forward is an exciting opportunity for Carnegie Mellon University to join a dedicated community of professionals prepared to share evidence-based practices and resources, troubleshoot challenges, generate knowledge and continue to advance the success of first-generation students across the country,” said Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA. “We are excited to see a groundswell of activity from the First-gen Forward cohort and know Carnegie Mellon will be a significant contributor.”
With the addition of its third cohort, First-gen Forward recognizes and supports more than 200 diverse institutions, all of which continue to lead the nation through their commitment to first-generation student success.
Burkert and Smith will be speaking with academic advisors from 3 – 4 p.m. March 29 to discuss CMU’s participation in the First-gen Forward program and on supporting first-gen students. The Zoom session is part of the Academic Advisor Network and is open to all interested parties.