June 16, 2022
Every semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), over 100 students participate in the Panther Partners cohort program designed for those who are first in their families to attend college.
The Panther Partners program builds a strong cohort community as it provides workshops and special events. Participants gain skills to navigate the maze of college processes like enrollment, and are familiarized with the range of resources at BMCC such as free tutoring.
The program also helps students build a repertoire of strategies for time management, understanding financial aid and exploring career options.
Alongside these activities, the students meet one-on-one with a dedicated faculty or staff mentor—a Panther Partner Coach—several times throughout the semester.
“I became a Panther Partner mentor because I understand how difficult it can be when you first get to college and don’t know where anything is,” said Professor of English Francisco D. Delgado, whose mentee Karla Gonzalez was among this year’s graduates from the program. “I really like helping students learn more about all the resources we have on campus, such as the Learning Resource Center or the Counseling Center, and often, in the process, I learn more about these resources for myself.”
At BMCC, more than 53 percent of students are the first in their family to attend college, according to data gathered from financial aid applications. To ensure those students have the support they need to be successful, New Student Programs and the Division of Student Affairs at BMCC developed and piloted the Panther Partners program in Spring 2017.
The success of the Panther Partners program was recognized in 2019 by the Center for First-generation Student Success. BMCC was one of just 11 institutions nationwide designated as a First-gen Forward Advisory Institution.
Today, the BMCC Panther Partners cohort includes participants who have just earned their Associate degree and are moving toward next steps such as entering a baccalaureate program or meaningful work in their chosen field.””
“It has been an honor and privilege to walk along the path to graduation with Quiana, the Panther Partner with whom I was matched,” says Teacher Education Professor Jennifer M. Longley. “In addition to mentorship, the Panther Partners program facilitates a sense of belonging in the college community. When students feel as though they belong, they are more likely to develop a strong identity as a college student. Students who have a deep connection to the college and identify as a college student, are more likely to persist and be successful in college.”
“As a first-generation college student myself, I completely understand the need for mentorship and guidance along the academic and professional journey,” says Panther Partner mentor and Associate Director of Career Services and Employer Relations Thierry Thesatus. “Nothing could be more rewarding for me professionally than to play an active role in supporting our first generation students in making the choices and setting goals for themselves.”
“One of the most satisfying things for me, about being part of the Panther Partner program is seeing our student participants at commencement in their blue-and-gold caps and gowns, proudly holding up their diplomas and being cheered on by their family and friends. This is why we do what do, supporting first-generation students and reinforcing their belief in their own unique talent and potential,” Rahana Belle-Jerome, New & First Year Student Programs Specialist, Office of Student Affairs.
Panther Partner mentees encourage other first-generation students to join the program
Panther Partner participant Felichia Cole, who just crossed the stage at Barclays Center for BMCC’s 57th Commencement and was conferred an Associate in Health Science degree, plans to continue in the healthcare field and work toward becoming a Registered Nurse.
“What attracted me initially to the Panther Partner program was the free MetroCard,” says Cole. “However, I soon realized there were better benefits than getting a MetroCard. The Panther Partner program helped me navigate my way through BMCC and as a member I was privileged to attend informative seminars and was paired with one of the best coaches. Science Professor Sarah Salm was more than a coach, she was like family to me. She was there through every step of my journey at BMCC, the high points and the low points. There were times I felt like giving up but didn’t, thanks to Professor Salm and her encouragement and believing in me.”
Cole also thanks her parents and Panther Partner program manager Rahana Belle-Jerome. She offers this advice to other first-generation students: “Make sure to become a member of the Panther Partner program, because it will provide you with the necessary tools to succeed at BMCC and prepare you for success beyond BMCC. Do not be afraid to ask for help and accept help when given. Find a group of people that will inspire you to do your best because this will allow you to go confidently in the direction of your dream.”
Michelle Ramos, who just crossed the Commencement stage and earned an Associate in Digital Marketing degree, aspires to start her own business.
“Initially, my plan was to go straight to a four-year college after obtaining my associate degree,” she says. “That plan has since changed. I was one of the many people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Fortunately, I was able to use the time to my advantage and pick up more courses. For now, the plan is to re-enter the workforce full time, but with the full intention of returning in the next year or so to obtain my bachelor’s degree.”
She says that being the first person in her family to earn a college degree has been one of the happiest moments of her life.
“Not only have I made my family proud, but I have made myself proud. The last time I attended school was over 25 years ago, and I had pretty much given up on the idea of going to college and swinging that tassel to the left side. I will carry this feeling with me wherever I go and for the rest of my life.”
Being a returning student as well as a first-generation student gives Ramos a useful perspective.
“To be honest, it was a little hard for me to fit in the beginning,” she says. “I had been out of school for so long that it took a while to adjust. I was working full-time and was a caretaker for my elderly parents. I didn’t have much time left over to attend program events, but the staff in the Panther Partners program understand how busy our lives can get. They really made an effort to make things easier for us. They made everyone feel like they belonged, and they mattered.”
Ramos describes the Panther Partner events and seminars as “interesting, fun and most of all relevant to our journeys. Their mentoring program was also a great part of the program. It was really nice to have someone help navigate the ins and outs of being a college student over 40. My mentor was amazing and I’m sure others in the program felt the same. Initially, when I signed up I expected a program that was informative and inclusive, but in the end, I received so much more. Belonging to the Panther Partners Program was the highlight of my three years at BMCC.”
Ivy Thomas graduated with her class at Barclays Center this month, having earned an Associate in Nursing degree and currently enrolled in the Bachelor’s of Nursing program at Capella University.
“I am eagerly awaiting to embark on my new career in nursing at the Bellevue Hospital next week,” says Thomas. “I joined the Panther Partners program because I needed guidance. This was my first time attending school in the U.S. I remember feeling overwhelmed with uncertainty; there was so much I did not know. The Panther Partners program exceeded my expectations.”
Thomas’s mentor was Thierry Thesatus, Associate Director of Career Services and Employer Relations in the BMCC Center for Career Development.
“Thierry genuinely wanted to see me succeed and took measures to ensure that I do just that,” Thomas says. “I remember telling him that I wished I could have taken microbiology as an Honors course, but it wasn’t listed among the Honors courses. He told me ‘Ivy, never take yourself out of the race, let them take you out. Have a talk with your professor about your interest.’ I followed his advice and was ecstatic when my professor agreed to take me on as her Honors protégé. I give that advice to my son and all my classmates.”
She encourages other first-generation students to join the Panther Partner program.
“They have amazing mentors who understand your struggles,” she says. “They were once in your shoes. Now that they have succeeded, they are willing and eager to guide you, to connect you to resources that will enable you to be successful as well.”
“I feel like I have broken a cycle,” she adds. “Neither of my parents went to college but my eight-year-old son was able to see me graduate from college. I am now equipped with all that I need to go anywhere and make a positive impact. I will be sure to pass it forward.”
Childhood Education major Olevia James, who graduated from BMCC in Winter 2022 and is now majoring in Childhood and Special Educational at NYU Steinhardt, appreciates the support she received through the Panther Partners program at BMCC.
“I joined because as a first-generation student, I knew little about how college worked. The added benefit of having a mentor who had experience in my major also helped,” says James.
Her advice to first-generation students entering BMCC is, “Take hold of the support system at BMCC. Ask questions and ask for help. The Panther Partners and support services at BMCC will carry you into the next phases of your academic and career journey.”
It’s exciting to fulfill her dream, she says, “and seeing my mother gleam with pride for her only daughter pushes me to strive for more.”
The BMCC Panther Partners program supports the BMCC Strategic Plan including Strategic Goal 5: Strengthen our Culture of Care for Students, Faculty and Staff.
- BMCC Panther Partner program provides first-generation students with seminars, a supportive cohort community and a one-on-one coach
- New Student Programs and the Division of Student Affairs piloted the program in Spring 2017; it was recognized in 2019 by the Center for First-generation Student Success
- Today more than 100 students per semester join the Panther Partners program