Shakima Clency, associate dean of students for student empowerment and director of first-generation and low-income student support

Student Empowerment: Helping first-gen and low-income students succeed

In the newly created role of associate dean of students for student empowerment and director of first-generation and low-income student support, Shakima Clency serves as an advocate and resource for first-gen and low-income students, helping foster academic and social communities to bolster their experience and help them succeed and thrive at Cornell.

A first-generation college student, Clency holds degrees from Alfred University and Canisius College. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the educational leadership and cultural foundations program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where she held a variety of leadership positions in residence life, learning communities, orientation, academic advising and first-year experience. Most recently, she was the inaugural Diversity Fellow at Alfred University.

Who might be considered a first-generation student?

There are many definitions used to categorize this group of students, but most commonly it is defined as a student who is the first in their family to attend a four-year university. This population of students has continued to grow incrementally. To be admitted to Cornell, these students have demonstrated that they are academically talented, some have overcome significant social and economic challenges, and many will face obstacles as they learn to navigate and negotiate the college environment without the guidance of parents who are familiar with the nuances of the undergraduate student experience.

Success will come if our students to feel empowered, to graduate motivated to be engaged in their communities, and to return as alumni willing to share their talents, time, resources and speak fondly of their experiences at Cornell.”

Why are first-generation students important to Cornell?

Cornell’s founding mission challenges us to strive for greater socio-economic, gender and racial diversity. As we continue to diversify our student population and admit students from groups who have previously been marginalized and excluded from access to higher education, we also have a responsibility to remove barriers and support systemic interventions to ensure that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have opportunities for a transformative educational experience and feel a genuine sense of belongingness throughout their time here.

What’s the correlation between first-generation and low-income students?

It’s not a direct correlation. Not all first-gen students are from low socio-economic backgrounds, and not all students from low socio-economic backgrounds are first-gen students. Similarly, not all first-gen or low-income students are students of color. We have students with majority identities who come from many socio-economic backgrounds or rural communities who are the first in their families to attend college.

One of the things that students who are both first-gen and low-income have in common is that they may face more challenges to transitioning, building a strong social network, dealing with college expenses, and identifying resources and strategies to succeed in college. The college environment is filled with unique terminology, cultural norms, practices and expectations which shape a student’s experience. Not having a parent who is familiar with that process can make it even more difficult for some students because they are venturing into unchartered territory, often times without a guide.

What are some of the key elements in supporting students on their journey?

Cornell is a large, decentralized campus, so helping students navigate resources can be a challenge regardless of their backgrounds. It is important for faculty and staff to have a deeper understanding and sensitivity to the different kinds of obstacles and opportunities that students might face due to some aspect of their identities. Additionally, it is important to recognize how statements and practices inside or outside the classroom can make students feel alienated or welcomed. To support first-gen and low-income students we need allies who are visible on campus and can normalize the feelings of isolation, guilt and anxiety that students may struggle with. We also need to continually access and use institutional data to outreach and track these students from admission to graduation.

What does it mean for students to feel empowered?

I consider first-generation students to be extremely resilient. They had to overcome substantial challenges and obstacles in order to get here. They had to, perhaps, be more independent at a younger age, navigate bureaucratic processes or learn to advocate for themselves. So while they might have been or felt empowered through past experiences, some may lack confidence in their abilities, feel out of place or struggle with guilt about leaving their families to pursue a college degree. To empower students, they need to feel included, valued and have opportunities to share their personal experiences and learn from others who have overcome adversity.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?

I recognize that it will take time and patience to bring about transformational change. Nevertheless, I will feel successful in my work, if I am able to help more students feel they’ve had access to academic, social, psychological and financial resources to immerse themselves fully in their undergraduate experience. I also hope to contribute to the national conversation through involvement with the First Generation Low Income Consortium to highlight best practices and better position Cornell, among our peer institutions, as an intellectual community supportive of students from historically underserved or underrepresented communities. Most importantly, success will come if our students feel empowered, to graduate motivated to be engaged in their communities, and to return as alumni willing to share their talents, time, resources and speak fondly of their experiences at Cornell.

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