New organization empowers first-generation college students

First Gen ’Canes pose for a group photo before the start of a general meeting. Photo courtesy First Gen 'Canes
By Jenny Hudak

First Gen ’Canes pose for a group photo before the start of a general meeting. Photo courtesy First Gen 'Canes

New organization empowers first-generation college students

By Jenny Hudak
First Gen ’Canes offers students, who are the first in their immediate family to attend college, opportunities to connect with their peers and resources that guide their academic path and support their career goals.

When Cassandra Michel began her college experience, as a first-generation student, she sought support and resources at the University of Miami to guide her on her journey.

Through Empower Me First, a student advising and mentorship program for undergraduate first-generation college students offered by the Office of Academic Enhancement, Michel, a senior studying psychology, connected with Micah Johnson, associate director for Empower Me First. Recognizing that first-generation students needed peer-to-peer support, the pair decided to create a new student organization—First Gen ’Canes. 

“I’m really passionate about community and making people feel like they have a space on campus,” said Michel, who serves as president of the organization. “One of the things we prioritized in creating First Gen ’Canes was creating community.” 

The goal of the First Gen ’Canes is to connect first-generation students with their peers through various workshops and networking opportunities. Meetings for club members include building skills to support their mental health, career goals, and academic path.

Students attend a recent First Gen 'Canes meeting.
Students attend a recent First Gen 'Canes meeting.

The club also offers informational meetings where they invite guest speakers from campus partners, like the Toppel Career Center and the Counseling Center, to offer advice on how to best navigate the experience of being a first-generation student. 

“We want students to know that they have support at school, but we also want to give them that support by teaching them about resources that will make them successful in their futures,” said Christian Blakely, a sophomore studying microbiology and immunology, and chair of First Gen Week, which will take place in November. 

For Jason Ramkissoon, a sophomore studying international relations, support from his peers through organizations like First Gen ’Canes offers him the unique opportunity to be mentored by juniors and seniors. And in turn, the group gives him the chance to mentor new students.

“When I started college, I didn’t have a lot of people in my life that were in the position that I am currently in that I could reach out to for advice or knowledge that they had,” Ramkissoon said. “Being able to foster a community with students who are in your classes, that you see all the time, helps us as a first-generation community. We hope we’re fostering a community where students can both teach and learn from others.” 

Michel hopes that creating a space to empower and connect first-generation students will help cultivate strong leadership and future success among her peers. She also hopes the organization helps students feel proud to be first-generation students.

“Being a first-generation student is something to be proud of,” she said. “You’re the first person in your family to go to college. That is a huge accomplishment, and something students should feel empowered to identify with.” 

In 2019, the University of Miami was recognized by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators as a First-Gen Forward Institution by the Center for First-Generation Student Success. The accolade highlights the University's dedication to first-generation student success.

“I want to encourage students to do things that inspire themselves, but also inspire each other,” said Johnson, who advises First Gen ’Canes. “Creating a space for them to find commonality, to feel seen by their peers, is a barrier breaker and a bridge builder for them.” 

Visit Engage for more information on First Gen ’Canes.