Admissions Blog

The First-Generation Student Community at SIPA

By Angel Ornelas '24
Posted Nov 27 2023

The definition of a first-generation student is complicated. To give more context on why this definition is so complex, here is a definition provided by the national Center for First-Generation Student Success:

“While the term “first-generation” may seem self-explanatory, the nuance of the identity does require examination. Often, first-generation students are categorized simply as those who are the first in their family to attend college. Yet, this leads to questions about the postsecondary experiences of extended family members, older siblings, and even non-family adults who have important roles in the lives of students. Many institutions have chosen to use the federal definition officially developed for TRiO program acceptance and to determine eligibility for Pell Grants which indicates first-generation students come from families where their biological parents did not complete a four-year college degree.”

At SIPA, the first-generation student community is diverse and grows with every incoming class. This semester, first-generation student leaders founded the First-Generation Student Union (FGSU), the first of its kind at SIPA. The Instagram account name for the FGSU is @sipafgsu. The types of events held this semester include the following: 

  • National First-Generation Student Day
  • Free Headshots Session sponsored by the Career Advancement Center (CAC)
  • Fireside chat with CUNY Professor Evan Mandery
  • Community Building Time
  • Navigating the Consulting World as a First-Generation Student

In an effort to help prospective first-generation applicants, the following sections are reflections from the first-generation community at SIPA:

Student Testimonies:


Gabriella D. Ramirez

Having just graduated from undergrad, my transition to SIPA has felt a bit intense. As an undergrad at a small liberal arts college, I found identifying resources and my sense of community easier than here in the city. Prior to coming to SIPA, I would have liked to know that accessibility to resources is much more limited than when in undergrad. I feel like as Master's students, there are higher expectations pushed onto us, without a recognition of the intersecting identities of some of the students, such as first gen college students. I am really looking forward to getting involved in student clubs and organizations to help me feel more integrated into the SIPA community.




Krishna Kishore Pandalaneni

As a first-generation graduate migrant from a low-income agrarian family, my transition from a tiny village to a metropolitan city was challenging. I had to overcome the stereotype that education is only for well-off families. Well-wishers of the family who made my parents aware of the benefits of education, distant relatives who psychologically supported my parents, and the government's and university's key support in the form of education awareness sessions and subsidized education helped me overcome this hurdle. Then, interacting with city folk made me feel like a bumpkin. Without community and state support, I might be one of the many villagers who struggle to make a living by being agricultural labor. Though the path may seem daunting, I am a firm believer and demonstrable proof that anything is possible with enough determination. A decade ago, I was a first-generation graduate, unsure of my future, coming from a low-income home in a developing country where my parents were agricultural laborers. I had never heard of the IVY league, Columbia, or Public Administration, but now I am a student at SIPA. If I can do it, so can you.



Theresa Geck

My first few weeks at SIPA were characterized by a blend of new information, new environment, and new faces. Amidst this whirlwind of change, the opportunity to explore topics I'm passionate about, and perhaps even more so, those I hadn't anticipated being interested in, is what makes my SIPA journey so exciting. Prepare yourself for the amount of opportunities that will come your way. It's helpful to narrow down your interests before arriving at SIPA to maintain focus, but equally crucial to keep an open mind for unexpected opportunities that may cross your path—be it competitions, (external) events, speaker series, or collaborations with other schools. Don't hesitate to explore courses from other specializations or concentrations; sometimes, hidden gems lie where you least expect them.




Kamilah Lopez

I remember the moment I told my mother I got accepted into Columbia University. She had never heard of Columbia. As a refugee, much of her life was spent surviving and ensuring I had a roof over my head. For me, the thought of attending college, let alone graduate school, had never even crossed my mind, but here I am in my final semester of graduate school. Coming to SIPA has changed my life in insurmountable ways, even in ways I have yet to experience. However, this journey has come with many challenges and lessons along the way. 

To all my fellow first-generation students, take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary distance you've traveled to get here and acknowledge that this is just the opening chapter of your remarkable journey. Embrace the discomfort of the unknown. SIPA is a place where diverse backgrounds converge, each person carrying their unique life experiences. Here we have the opportunity to learn from one another, to grow, and to expand our horizons. Our journeys are a testament to our resilience and determination. As we navigate this uncharted territory, let us continue to embrace the opportunities SIPA offers, grow together, and write the unwritten chapters of our remarkable stories.



Joshua Lee

First, search for and maximize the resources that are available. There are a lot of resources in SIPA, Columbia University-wide network, City of New York, State of New York, and more. Don't restrict yourself to opportunities and resources that are just out in the plains and/or given to you in a pamphlet. Think bigger and go get what you need. I am a firm believer that if you really want it, you can get it. All in all, the moral of what I am trying to say is that don't let the time you are given to study just slip by with just coursework, club activities, and/or work. THINK BIGGER and MAXIMIZE the time and opportunity to leverage what you truly came to SIPA for.

Second, I highly recommend doing a dual degree, as an international dual degree student myself. When preparing to do so, be on top of preparations. Some of my peers wanted to do it but couldn't because they didn't have enough applicable credits and other similar reasons. I personally frequently checked in with OSA and Dean Alleyne to see what needed to be done and deliver them. Personally, It's only been a little over a month in Hertie School (Germany). I am so glad I didn't back out and am doing it. To list a few reasons but not limited to why you should do it, you can have two degrees and networks (MIA at SIPA & MPP at Hertie), cheaper tuition and cost of living, and opportunities to interact and live in different parts of the world.

Lastly, find your community and pick them wisely. Your community can make or break you and your experiences. It's truly a wonderful place to be that will challenge and teach you. There are many people from different backgrounds and political ideologies at SIPA. Don't be afraid to learn from them and make your own decisions. Feel free to reach out should you want to connect. My email is [email protected].

Concluding Thoughts
If you are still reading this blog post and identify with the experiences laid out by the student testimonies, you will have a community to support you at SIPA. You have made it this far, despite all of the hurdles, and I can assure you that the FGSU will be your second family here at SIPA. If you have any additional questions about the first-gen experience at SIPA, do not hesitate to reach out to me by email at [email protected] (Angel Ornelas, MIA ‘24). Wishing you the best of luck and the FGSU hopes you will join the SIPA family!