By Eileen C. Herbert, Chief Communications Officer, Canisius University

Photo of Mariama McCoy ’21 courtesy of Canisius University


Mariama McCoy ’21 has come full circle. She began her undergraduate experience at Canisius as a first-generation student, and now as a graduate student was proud to plan the 2021 First-Generation College Celebration on campus.

Currently pursuing her master’s degree in Higher Education & Student Affairs Administration (HESAA), McCoy said Canisius provided her with the assistance to succeed in her undergraduate studies and the confidence to pursue her graduate degree.

“Canisius created an environment where I was comfortable to grow as a person,” she said. “The college provides a support system that empowers first-generation students to be successful through respect, sensitivity and compassion.” McCoy said her list of supporters was long, including her professors, academic advisor, dean of her program and fellow students. “One of the best connections I made along my educational journey was with my mentor, Jenyia Wilson MS ’20, who worked as a graduate assistant in Tutoring Services.”

An Urban Leadership Learning Community (ULLC) scholar during her undergraduate years, McCoy also received encouragement and guidance from fellow students in the program. The ULLC enables the best and brightest students from Greater Buffalo who have historically been denied positions of influence or power to enroll in a unique educational opportunity at Canisius that helps create the next generation of leaders in Buffalo and Western New York.

Now a graduate assistant in the ALANA Student Center, McCoy took a leadership role in planning the college’s first-generation events.

“We celebrated pride among first-generation students with a variety of social and educational events, including speakers, career night, trivia night and a library-curated selection of books by first-generation students such as Barack Obama,” McCoy explained. The weeklong observance culminated in Pints with Professors with Bennie Williams, assistant dean of students and director of the Multicultural Student Center. The event is an opportunity for students to connect with first-generation faculty and administrators.

Williams also oversees the ALANA Student Center, which provides African American, Latinx American, Asian American and Native American students with various services that help them prosper at Canisius and after they graduate. ALANA supports the campus community goals of fostering, respecting and exploring cultural differences.

“At Canisius, students join a diverse community with many fellow first-generation students, faculty and staff,” Williams said. “This population continues to grow as more than 25 percent of this year’s incoming freshmen are first-generation students.”

Mark R. Harrington MS ’10, Ed.D., assistant vice president for student development and academic success, partners with Williams to lead the task force for first-generation programming. This working committee focuses on welcoming students who identify as first-generation into the Canisius community through programs and services that assist them in navigating the college environment.

“Being a first-generation student is a key part of one’s identity on a college campus,” Harrington said. “We make certain that our first-generation students are celebrated and encouraged throughout their collegiate experience, and provide a supportive learning community as they pursue their educational goals.”

First Generation students also benefit from the college’s First-Year Experience (FYE) Program. The semester-long course takes a holistic approach to acclimating first-year students to the campus environment. The experience provides an onboarding that promotes academic success, builds a sense of belonging, and fosters student health and wellness. Each student has a designated peer mentor, an upperclassman available to give advice and guidance.

“This experience is especially important for our first-generation students because it lays the foundation for a successful undergraduate experience,” Harrington said. “Students develop connections with their professors, earn higher grades, are retained at higher rates, are more likely to become involved in the life of the campus and feel a sense of belonging in our community.”

Students are also paired with a four-person success team, which consists of an academic advisor, financial aid advisor, success coach and career coach. “The combination of our first-generation and first-year programming is a recipe for success,” Harrington added.

New at Canisius is the formation of a chapter of Alpha Alpha Alpha (or Tri-Alpha), a national honor society that promotes academic excellence and provides opportunities for growth, leadership development and community service for first-generation college students.

“Our chapter, Delta Gamma, will induct its first members (undergraduate and graduate students) this spring,” said Williams, who serves with Harrington as the chapter’s advisors. “At the induction ceremony, members will receive graduation cords to wear at commencement.”

McCoy is excited about the chapter and looks forward to her own induction. “It is so important to celebrate first-generation students and give them the credit they deserve,” she said.

After graduation, McCoy hopes to work on behalf of first-generation students: “I owe my success to the support I received, and in turn, I want to empower this growing population to be successful.”