The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Panther Partners program provides a welcoming cohort experience for students who come from families where neither parents nor guardians hold a college degree from an institution in the United States.
The college is celebrating the program and participants on First Gen College Day on Nov. 8, a commemorative day launched by the Center for First-Generation Student Success along with the Council for Opportunity in Education.
“First-generation College Day is an opportunity to reach out to more first-generation college students, engage more stakeholders and highlight the services we provide at BMCC for our first-generation community members,” said New and First-Year Student Programs Specialist Rahana Belle-Jerome. “We are always looking for new ways to welcome students into the program and ensure that they have a strong sense of belonging and access to success at BMCC.”
In recent years, some of BMCC’s most illustrious students have been the first in their families to earn a college degree. These include the 2022 and 2021 valedictorians, a Student Government Association president, many scholarship winners and others.
Discovering their strengths
As the program gears up for its November 8 celebration, participants have shared their thoughts.
“It makes me proud and happy to be the first my immediate family to attend college,” says computer science major Joseph Sahan, and cites his Panther Partner mentor “for being very helpful by providing all types of information.”
Video arts and technology (VAT) major Alexa Maldonado says, “I took matters into my own hands,” when she entered college, “and learned how to be a college student the hard way.” She chose VAT as her career focus because “I want to pursue my creative passions and at least give myself a chance.”
Asking for help, she says, “didn’t come naturally to me. I had to fail something to learn that it’s okay to ask for help, whether that be for studying, my career search and my financial situation.”
Being part of the Panther Partner community gave her the strength to test her abilities.
“I understand that if something needs to be done or if I want to accomplish a goal, I have to put in the work and do it,” she says. “Learn how to study and manage your time so that you are not constantly stressed about homework, quizzes, projects and tests. Know when to take a break. Also, know that you are not alone.”
“Attending college means having the world in your hands,” says business administration major Joanna Barrientos. “Being the first of something is always scary but to be the first to attend college is opening doors you didn’t realize existed. It’s an amazing feeling to create your own future!”
Barrientos felt inspired by her Panther Partners mentor, who she says, recognized her potential.
“She saw what no one else did,” says Barrientos. “She knew that helping me would make a difference in the world. What she saw in me, she knew the world needed.”
There was a learning curve, she admits, navigating college registration processes like applying for financial aid and completing her FAFSA paperwork. “What drove me to hang in there,” she says, “is the dream of being an entrepreneur.”
Liberal Arts major Bintou Diomande, who grew up in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in West Africa, says being a college student is “huge,” especially since “it happened in another country, and in another language.”
She shares that the challenges of being in college are sometimes logistic: “In my first semester, I didn’t know what to do about a course I didn’t like, and needed help figuring out how to drop the course.”
Looking back on her Panther Partners experience, she speaks with enthusiasm about her mentors.
“They helped me with any and every question I came to them with,” says Diomande. “They helped me find my career path by connecting me with other professors for advice. They helped me find information on how to get into the fashion industry and how to properly write an admissions essay. They provided compassion, availability and much more.”
Mentors share resources, encouragement
Panther Partner mentor Shareen Laskar, who is BMCC’s director of first year and new student programs, looks back on her own first-generation college experience.
“When I enrolled, I was certain of my academic and career path in science and medicine. But as I progressed through my classes, and was exposed to other fields, ideas and subjects, I realized my interests and abilities were more suited for psychology or counseling,” she says.
She also problem-solved around barriers like the cost of textbooks, which she found she could borrow from the library, and took a part-time job to meet expenses not covered by student loans and grants.
“I was learning not just about the world around me, but about myself as well,” says Laskar. “My superpower is vigilance. As a first gen student, I had to be aware of any opportunity that could help me network or connect me to a job or internship. I knew I had to rely on the resources on campus because my family and support system off campus could not help me professionally, although they did support me personally.”
She advises today’s first-gen students to avail themselves of campus resources such as scholarships, internships and volunteer opportunities—as well as reaching out for help from faculty and staff.
“You never know which experience or conversation will lead you to your career or academic path,” Laskar says.
Student Success Specialist Albert Lee has a wealth of first-gen college experience to share with his Panther Partner mentees.
“It meant my parents had to trust me to make right decisions and recover from poor decisions on my own,” he says. “It meant I had responsibilities at home even if I lived on campus; such as translate their mail, write checks, make appointments, run errands, visit families, tutor siblings and prep them on their college readiness.”
It also meant assuming his own debts, he says, “and not relying on nepotism for work and making it all the way to graduation, during the recession.”
Katherine Bedoye, a Panther Partner mentor who serves as a senior career advisor in the BMCC Center for Career Development says, “To me, to be the first in my family to attend college means that I set an example for future generations of my family and prove that it is possible to achieve anything you set your mind to, no matter what level of resources are available to you.”
As Bedoye puts it, “I may have been the first to attend college in my family, but I won’t be the last.”
She counts her mentors among her biggest influences. “When I first started college I went in blind and I had no idea what I wanted to do. If it weren’t for the people I surrounded myself with—and who later became my mentors—I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career path.”
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