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SUNY Plattsburgh Celebrates First-generation College Student Day

pod first gen students faculty

SUNY Plattsburgh celebrated first-generation college students with several events around National First-generation College Student Day Nov. 8, honoring and recognizing their achievements, experiences and challenges they face at school and at home.

Some 40 percent of first-year students at SUNY Plattsburgh are first-generation college students.

‘Building a Sense of Community’

“Being the first in your family to go to college can be challenging. You are navigating a new system and set of processes, while also balancing other life responsibilities,” said Lauren Gonyea, coordinator of TRIO student success. 

“We wanted students to know they are not alone and build a sense of community with our first-generation students.”

First-generation students qualify for services through the Office of Student Support Services.

Staff provide academic tutoring, advising, assistance completing the FAFSA, and career guidance. There is also a licensed mental health counselor among the staff who can provide supportive counseling.

A grant Gonyea obtained from NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, covered a portion of the cost of the week’s events.

‘Connect First-generation Students and Faculty’

small pods first genOn Tuesday, Nov. 7, students and faculty gathered in the Cardinal Lounge, Angell College Center for a small group discussion event where faculty who were the first in their families to attend college met shared their experiences with first-generation students.

Students asked them questions, shared their own stories and received advice.

Faculty and students “can connect in a different way than you can in a classroom,” Gonyea said.

‘Learning Importance of Building Relationships’

“It was nice talking to some of the faculty and knowing at this stage when they were college students as well, they didn’t always have everything together and there was a lot (for them) to learn,” said sophomore Aicha Toumkara.

“They told me about building connections (with faculty), so I really think that’s going to be my main focus moving on forward. I’m really glad I got to speak to someone about that and just get their perspective on things.”

pod talk first genComing from a religious home in Harlem with eight siblings, it was difficult to be the first in her family to leave New York City for college, Toumkara, said.

“You have to do what’s best for you even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s scary,” the marketing major said.

“You’re doing it to secure your future and to get everything in line. That’s my advice to people. Do what you have to do for yourself.”

‘Find a Mentor Among the Faculty’

Athena Castro-Lewandowski, writing skills specialist in student support services, was one of the six faculty or staff members meeting with students.

Castro-Lewandowski teaches first-year composition and tutors students in English and writing.

“If I could do it (college again), I’d love myself more and focus on self-care,” she said.

Originally from the Bronx, the SUNY Plattsburgh alum majored in English and theater.

Dr. Tracie Church-Guzzio, director of the Redcay Honors Center and professor of English, advised Castro-Lewandowski as a student.

She wanted to pursue a master’s degree, but finances were a barrier for her, she told the students.

tracie guzzioChurch-Guzzio told Castro-Lewandowski that if she was accepted into a master’s program, the institution would fully fund her, and she graduated from Ohio University, the same university from which Church-Guzzio received her doctorate.

Castro-Lewandowski advised students to find a mentor among the faculty who can write letters of recommendation or coach them on their next steps after college.

‘Academics is Most Important Aspect of College Life’

Fatimata Gassama, an undeclared sophomore, said she hopes to get advice from faculty and use that to select the best major for her.

“I want to make something of myself,” the Manhattan woman said.

She offered some advice for future first-generation students.

“School is more important than anything else, any other aspects (of college life),” Gassama said.

“School is more important than working. I understand money is important because college is very expensive. Hone in on the schoolwork; make sure you understand your work. Go to office hours or talk to professors to understand instead of giving up.”

She encouraged new students to care for themselves to support their wellbeing.

“Stay on track and reach out for help when you need it. Don’t think you’re just going through it alone. Mental health is big. Don’t let yourself go into this rabbit hole.”

Events Scheduled Through Friday

The events honoring first-generation students continued Wednesday, Nov. 8 with free water bottle decorating in the lobby of Angell College Center.

Nov. 9 from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m., first-generation students were invited to enjoy pizza, cake and conversation with City of Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest, a SUNY Plattsburgh alum.

Rosenquest will speak about his experience as a first-generation college student and answer student questions. The winner of a scholarship essay contest will be announced at the event.

A game night for first-generation students is planned for 1 to 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 10 in the Relaford Room, Macomb. Board and video games will allow students to decompress and relate to one another, Gonyea said.

For more information, contact Gonyea at 518-564-2810 or email [email protected].

— Story, Photos by Assistant Director of Communications Felicia Krieg

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