Diana Reynoso never attended a private school until Fordham. She faced difficulties adjusting to the new environment, she said, in addition to the challenges of being a first-generation college student. But in a cozy top-floor office on Fordham’s Bronx campus, she found a place that felt like home. 

“I don’t have to be shy about what I want to ask. I don’t have to lie about my financial needs. Sometimes on campus I have to deal with cultural differences and I feel like I have to code switch, but at CSTEP, I can throw that all away and come as I am,” she said.  

Reynoso is a senior in Fordham’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, known as CSTEP. The statewide program prepares minority and economically disadvantaged undergraduates for professions in areas where they are underrepresented; Fordham’s chapter, which currently serves about 250 students, is one of the largest in New York. Its counselors have helped many first-generation students find community and stay on track.

‘A Backbone Throughout My Years’

CSTEP was established at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx in 1987 and expanded to the Manhattan Lincoln Center campus about 15 years ago. Students benefit from multiple academic and career-oriented resources, including paid internships and research opportunities, career seminars, networking events, and support classes for pre-health courses. But one of the greatest resources, students say, is the relationship they build with their CSTEP counselors. 

Fiona Sampaney was struggling with the coursework in her natural sciences major, but she couldn’t devote enough time to studying. In her free time, she said she often babysat her three younger siblings and worked as a supermarket cashier. But thanks to her CSTEP counselors, she found a solution. 

“Changing majors was something I had already thought of, but I didn’t know how to go about it. They helped me draw out a two-year plan for the rest of my time at Fordham and see how a major switch would affect my GPA and academic standing for medical school,” said Sampaney, a Bronx-born first-generation student at Fordham College at Lincoln Center who plans to become a pediatrician. 

Rashain Adams Jr., another first-generation student and a senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill, said CSTEP feels like a family. 

“Nobody is trying to compete with you when it comes to grades or success. Everyone truly just wants you to be OK, mentally and emotionally,” said Adams, who joined CSTEP in his second semester at Fordham. “The program has been a backbone throughout my years here.”

This past spring, Gerald “Geraldo” De La Cruz, a first-generation student and a senior at the Gabelli School of Business, became a residential assistant at the Rose Hill campus. He felt stressed and isolated, thanks to pandemic restrictions. But he was able to open up to his counselor, Renaldo Alba, who also serves as CSTEP’s associate director. 

“I was in a really bad place last year, mentally. I felt burnt out and drained,” De La Cruz said. “But when Renaldo starts his conversations with you, he’ll be like, ‘How are you?’ I was honest with him.” 

Sometimes students just want to be heard, Alba said. 

“They may just need to vent in a space that is judgement-free and confidential,” Alba said. “If you’re a first-generation student, you’re grappling with issues that parents and perhaps previous support systems cannot continue to help with.” 

To help students find community and perspective, he said, counselors work to connect students to colleagues in other offices, CSTEP alumni, and peers. “Finding others in moments of isolation helps a great deal,” he said.

A Parent’s Love and Pride

For many students, feelings of isolation begin even before they stepped foot on campus, as they navigate the application process largely on their own. Once they arrive, they feel the pressure to perform—both self-imposed and from family members who don’t fully understand college life. But at the end of the day, the students say they know their parents are proud. 

Adams, a history major raised by a single mother in the Bronx, said his mother loves talking about her three children: “She’s very excited that all of her kids have gone to college at this point. My brother graduated from John Jay, and he’s looking at his master’s degree. My sister just started her first year at New York University, and I’m about to graduate.” 

Others had similar things to say about their families.

“My mom is the cutest. She’s a home attendant, and she tells one of her patients about me all the time. When I finish a paper or get a good grade, she’ll be like, ‘Send it to me so he can read it!’” said Reynoso, an environmental studies major who wants to improve health outcomes for urban populations, especially people of color.  

De La Cruz, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, said he is thankful for his family, especially his mother, a small business owner who once wanted to study psychology. 

“I have an opportunity to do something that my parents couldn’t,” said De La Cruz, who wants to become a marketing executive for an entertainment company. “The sacrifices they made in life made it possible for me to do this.”

‘Lifting Myself and Those Around Me’

One of the most meaningful parts of being a first-generation college student is starting a legacy of education and generational wealth, said the students. 

“I can graduate and have a higher paying job,” said Sampaney. “That provides more knowledge for not just myself, but my future children and grandchildren.” 

For Reynoso, being a first-gen student also means representing others like her. Through Project TRUE, a youth development program between Fordham and the Wildlife Conservation Society, she has mentored local high schoolers who may become the first in their families to attend college, too. A good education also means personal freedom, she said. 

“I can think and make decisions for myself more freely. I’m given some sort of authority to validate my opinion more, but at the same time, I’m creating space for others who may not have had the same opportunities that I have, while saying that their experiences have equal authority,” Reynoso said. “I’m lifting myself and those around me.”