In Case You Missed It! NYU First-Generation Alumni Panel

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By: Sumaita Mahmood 

Hi everyone! My name is Sumaita, and I am a Wasserman Career Ambassador in my senior year studying Global Public Health and Chemistry. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the NYU First-Generation Alumni Panel. As someone who is a daughter of immigrants, I appreciated how this panel made me feel seen as a student at NYU by hearing from alumni that have had similar experiences to mine. 

The speakers who attended this event included:

  1. Mercedes Colwin (CAS ’86, English). Founding Partner, Gordon & Reese Law Firm
  2. Clayton Lawrence, MD (CAS ’90, Biology; NYU ‘91, Education). Deputy Chief of Staff, Veterans Healthcare, Systems of the Ozarks
  3. Jami Tanner (CAS ’19, Politics). Account Executive, Vested

Yaniv Kleinman from the NYU Wasserman Center for Career Developmet served as a moderator for the panel. Being first-generation himself, he selected questions that asked panelists to pinpoint and reflect on how their identity as first-generation influenced their views on education, their college experiences and their respective careers.

Here are some main takeaways that I received from these wonderful speakers:

  1. Recognizing that your achievements uplift not just you, but your entire community. 

Mercedes started off the panel with a powerful message that her mother told her growing up–Avanzar la raza. This phrase references how when first-generation students succeed, they do not only succeed for themselves and their families, but for their entire community that supports them and shares their cultural identity. This community often gives to you as much as you hope to give back to it. Dr. Lawrence reflected about his experiences at NYU and with the Black Science organization he was a part of during his undergraduate career. Jami pointed out that by being at NYU, first-generation students have earned their seat at the table next to peers who have more resources to get to the same place. Recognizing the accomplishment of getting into college is just as important as the first-generation students will make in the future. 

  1. Too much is given and too much is expected. 

This is a phrase that Dr. Lawrence used to aptly describe the first-generation experience, referencing his parents struggles in the United States and his own journey to meet their expectations and surpass them. Similarly, Jami described how her mother never had the opportunity to pursue further education and how that impacted her personal experience. All three panelists expressed the need to be not so hard on yourself and stressing over the feeling of underachieving during college. Mercedes hopes that more opportunities become present so that first-generation students do not feel the need to work a full-time job like she had to support herself as student. Jami found herself trying to justify her career choices, making the hard choice to choose a career that provides more security and less opportunity to work with what she is passionate about. However, she is confident that she will continue to make strides in her career that will let her achieve a great balance in both. 

  1. Be proud of what makes you different and continue exploration.

Mercedes shared how she makes sure that she teaches her kids Spanish and uses her cultural differences to her advantage, surpassing people’s expectations of her in court and in other aspects of her career. Dr. Lawrence emphasized how a person’s uniqueness makes them extraordinary, which is something he is constantly reminded of in the world of medicine. Jami recognized that all first-generation students share this struggle of turning their differences into a point of pride, but when it happens, students are able to beat the odds that were placed on them. 

  1. Make the most of your time at NYU because it is a fantastic place to be. 

Jami fondly recounted how blown away she had been when first coming to NYU, when she saw the New York Times office for the first time, explored museums, and experienced various other cultures and places. Dr. Lawrence describes how he values the microcosm that NYC is of culture, fashion, language and more. A native New Yorker, Mercedes reflected on how taking the subway from Queens to the heart of city broadened her horizons. We often say that NYU is in and of the city and it’s important to recognize how valuable your time is here to absorb numerous experiences that will affect you the rest of your life. All three panelists emphasized the need to make exploration a student’s prerogative as well as finding their community at NYU.

By attending panels like this one, you can gain a deeper understanding of how a label like first-generation connects you to a rich community of people that are eager to share their experiences to help you. The first-generation experience is one that is overwhelming and difficult, and at times, you can feel that you are on your own. However, through panels such as these, you are able to connect to alumni that have gone down the same unfamiliar roads as you have and your journey becomes easier with their guidance. 

For anyone interested in getting great advice, First Class is the Wasserman Center’s award-winning professional development and mentorship program for first generation undergraduate students at NYU. From September to April of every academic year, students accepted to the program work closely with their assigned mentor and career coach to help them advance their careers. Students are paired with mentors based on their career path, industry affiliation, and personal identities.

Applications open for First Class in August 2021. Contact stating your interest in the program for an application form. Undergraduate self-identified African American, Latinx a/o, and Indigenous students who are first-generation students are highly encouraged to participate.