Syracuse University Magazine

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Gathered at semester's end are SU First members (from left) Jesse Avalos '15, Colette Montgomery (advisor), Libere Ndacayisaba '15, Wendy Feng '14, and Loumia Mesilas '16.



Strengthening the First-Generation Community

Libere Ndacayisaba ’15 likens his experience as a first-generation college student to that of someone attempting to build a complex engineering system without a model. “You don’t have a foundation,” says Ndacayisaba, a biotechnology major who grew up in Burundi and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2008. “You don’t have something to look at and compare with. You have nothing to mirror. And that’s hard.”

For Ndacayisaba, those challenges have been eased by his participation in SU First—a mentoring, leadership, and peer connection program for students who are the first in their families to attend college. Offered by the Office of First-Year and Transfer Programs (FYTP), the initiative provides a supportive, close-knit environment for students and connects them to a wealth of resources and relationships to ensure their success at SU. “To me, this is very important,” Ndacayisaba says. “When you’re doing something you don’t know how to do, it is like being on uncharted waters, and sometimes you need support. You need someone to be there for you.”  

Originally called the Story Project, SU First was launched four years ago to provide a space for dialogue and community building among first-generation students, encouraging members to share their stories with each other and to chronicle their SU experiences through journal writing. The group’s story has also been told in video form as a means of inviting other students to join in. “SU First is a unique initiative,” says FYTP director Carrie Grogan Abbott. “Along with our pre-orientation program, it is part of a broader effort to partner with departments across campus to provide support and advocacy for first-generation students—generally 11 percent of each year’s incoming class—and make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.”

Throughout the academic year, SU First members meet weekly with the group’s advisor, Colette Montgomery. Conversations often begin with students sharing a high and low point from their week, with ideas for upcoming sessions arising out of the specific needs and interests they articulate. “One Friday they spoke about having trouble with time management skills,” says Montgomery, a second-year graduate student in the School of Education. “So the following week we had someone from the higher education program come in and do a time management workshop with them.” Other sessions included a Career Services workshop on social media and networking skills, one focused on graduate school as an option for first-generation students, and a group activity and buddy system to keep students inspired and motivated during the stressful weeks leading up to finals and graduation.

According to Ndacayisaba, who will serve as the group’s chair in the upcoming academic year, plans are in the works to expand the reach of SU First. For example, during Syracuse Welcome, members will join the Goon Squad, helping with move-in as a way to meet new first-generation students as soon as they arrive on campus. “We’re trying to make it more active and get more people involved,” says Ndacayisaba, who also hopes to introduce the group to such informal social activities as dinner get-togethers or a movie night. “I want to have all possible people come and join us, because I know from personal experience it’s very helpful. This group has become like my family here.” —Amy Speach