First-Generation Students and Alumni Discuss Strategies for Academic Success


The CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with first-generation student and alumni panelists on November 18. This was the second event of the First-Generation Student Success Series.

Organized and moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Alsop, assistant professor and academic director of the CUNY SPS communication and media program, and Dr. Carla Marquez-Lewis, director of the CUNY SPS psychology program, the seminar series is designed to address the challenges first-generation college students encounter. 

Dr. Alsop shared the inspiration for the evening. “After our first event, we knew that we wanted to organize another one that would focus more specifically on the first-generation student experience at SPS. We realized the best way to do this would be to hear directly from our students and alumni, and let their voices guide the conversation.”

Approximately 40 attendees joined the roundtable to hear strategies and advice from a selected group of first-generation students and alumni. Speakers on the panel included: Human Relations student Dominique Bishop; alum Tye Brown (MS, Business Management and Leadership); Health Services Administration student Alicia Diggs; alum Jade Powell (MS, Disability Services in Higher Education); and alum Lisa Sheridan (BA, Communications and Media).

The panelists fielded questions from both the moderators and the attendees while sharing how they navigated the issues that first-generation students confront. One of the recurrent themes of the discussion was the importance of self-advocacy. As Sheridan observed, “The single most important thing to do is claim your space and know that you deserve to be here… If there is one thing that I could pass on to new first-gen students, it is to never be afraid to advocate for yourself. Don’t be afraid of your own voice.”

Brown, who works in finance, helped frame the evening’s discussion. “As a Black man in New York, in an arena that does not have a lot of representation of Black men or people of color, you definitely have to advocate for yourself…Higher education is not just for the wealthy or privileged, it is for everyone,” said Brown. “A long time ago, a professor told me: ‘Education is the equilibrium and the equalizer in society.’…And when you go out and get the education, you do a global service, because there are a lot of disenfranchised people who don’t have the access… So it’s giving back. And in order to give back, you need more, so that you can give more.”

Recognizing that many students at CUNY SPS identify as first-generation college students, there are still more events scheduled next semester in the series. “For Spring 2022, we have two events planned. The first one in March will focus on funding college. The second event will take place in April and focus on imposter syndrome, since self-doubt was a recurring theme at the events. We are also working on other initiatives and student supports that we’ll be sharing in the coming months,” said Dr. Marquez-Lewis.  

To sign up for future First-Generation Student Success offerings, email

About the CUNY School of Professional Studies

For over 15 years, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) has been leading online education in New York. Notable for offering the most online bachelor’s and master’s degree options at the City University of New York, and for serving transfer students as the University system’s only undergraduate all-transfer college, CUNY SPS meets the needs of adults who wish to finish a bachelor’s degree, progress from an associate’s degree, earn a master’s degree or certificate in a specialized field, and advance in the workplace or change careers.

The School’s growth has been remarkable, with twenty-four degrees launched since 2006. Enrollment has risen by more than 30% in the last four years to over 4,000 students in the credit-bearing programs. Thousands more are enrolled in non-degree and grant-funded workplace learning programs. In addition, the School has an active alumni network and has established the CUNY SPS Foundation, which offers multiple scholarship opportunities to current students.

CUNY SPS has consistently been named by US News & World Report as one of the country’s top online institutions. This year, the School was ranked in the top 2% in the nation on the publisher’s list of the 2021 Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs.

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