When Is a Cornell Sweatshirt Not Just a Cornell Sweatshirt?

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As a first-generation college student, a bargain-rack item of Big Red swag felt like a talisman of belonging

By Anh LyJordan ’96

A photo of Ahn LyJordan

Last September, I returned to the Hill in my ongoing quest to start an alumni association for Cornellians who are first-generation college graduates.

I was attending a Homecoming event to raise visibility and awareness of first-gen issues on campus, and to rally as many students and alumni as possible to our cause.

While I was packing for the trip, I realized that the only Cornell clothing item I owned was an old, worn-out sweatshirt from my college days. I remembered the circumstances that led to buying that old sweatshirt.

It transported me back to fall 1992, when I was a freshman walking around campus—feeling lost, out of place, and distinctly different than the rest of the confident students I saw.

There were so many students who seemed like they knew what they were doing and acted as though they belonged there.

LyJordan in a computer lab as a student
In a computer lab as an undergrad.

I did not feel that way, but I definitely didn’t want anyone to know that. I just wanted to blend into the sea of red on campus.

Much like the term “first-generation” college student, the “imposter syndrome” that I was experiencing was not yet part of everyday vernacular.

Though I didn’t know the term, I knew how I might shake that feeling.

Though I didn’t know the term ‘imposter syndrome,’ I knew how I might shake that feeling.

I went on a mission to the bookstore in search of an invisibility cloak: a Cornell sweatshirt.

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I quickly realized that every sweatshirt was way too expensive, so I made a beeline to the clearance rack. I found a sweatshirt that only cost $20!

LyJordan at Cornell ILR commencement
Capped and gowned.

It wasn’t exactly my style, but it fulfilled two important criteria: it said “Cornell,” and it was affordable. I bought it.

Nearly 30 years to the day from my arrival, I once again headed to the bookstore to get a new sweatshirt. This time, I picked out the one I liked best and bought it.

I bought that full-priced sweatshirt without hesitancy, because I knew that I was paying for more than just an item of clothing.

I was paying for a symbol of my new identity.

LyJordan staffing a booth at Homecoming
With a colleague at Homecoming ’22.

It felt so fitting that upon my return to campus to help students who—just like me—were uncertain that they fit in or even belonged, I had this tangible reminder of both who I was and who I have become.

This feeling is precisely what drives me to do the work I am doing on behalf of first-gen students.

I want them to remember that how they are feeling in the moment does not have to define who they will become.

I want to foster a community where they can feel like they belong—regardless of how much they pay for their sweatshirt.

ILR alum Anh LyJordan ’96 is an advocate, mediator, and recovering trial attorney working at the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. The founder of Accelerate the Climb and the Collaborative of First-Gen Low-Income Alumni Networks (COFLAN), she lives in Raleigh, NC, with her partner, two teenage sons, and Labrador retriever. Cornellians interested in joining the University’s first-generation alumni group can reach her via email.

All images provided.

Published December 19, 2022


Comments

  1. Dianne Dyson Coles, Class of 1969

    Wow! In so many ways, that is exactly how I felt. As an African-American, I found it very difficult to assimilate into a culture that was so heavily socially centered around non- A-A Greek organizations. Only the small social circle that we had formed ourselves seemed to meet the need and desire for real, authentic peer interaction. I pushed myself to join the dance group because in that arena, I felt that I could participate on an equal level with other students and that was one of the very strongest ties that I had outside of the African-American community.
    Kudos to you, Anh! A great effort!

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